Japanese Remorse: Once More With Feeling

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs  
August 14, 2015 

Saturday, August 15, is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, and that anniversary pulls my memory back 50 years to 1965.

I was an apprentice journalist on a weekly newspaper in the small English country town of Newmarket, in the country of Suffolk, most famous as the home of horseracing. Journalism in Britain was considered a craft to be learned on the job (while earning a living wage) rather than to be pondered in classrooms (while clocking up student debt) and only learned later.

That’s why I’d gone to Britain after wasting a year at Canada’s McGill University in Montreal. As apprentices’ experience grew, editors expanded the complexity of events on which they were assigned to report. I was coming to grips with court reporting, an essential journalistic skill, not only for its important technical and legal skills, but also for the insights it provides into the human condition and the functioning of society.

The young always have a highly-strung sense of justice and I remember one Friday evening being in my local pub and complaining loudly to my companions about what had happened at magistrates court that day. I forget the details now, but it was a minor matter – at magistrates court it can have been nothing else – because of a procedural mistake by the clerk of the court. He was a local solicitor, an elderly man who I’ll call Harris, and in my youthful certainty I had come to the conclusion that he was incompetent and not up to the job any more.

My companions, all of them early men in their late 40s or early 50s and veterans of the Second World War, heard me out and then changed the topic of conversation. Later, one of the men who I knew best, pulled me aside.

“Jonathan,” he said, “Harris was our commanding officer at Singapore, Changi and the rest. We know he’s not always quite there. But that’s because he gave his sanity for us in the prison camps. You won’t hear a word against him in this town.”

The history of the Suffolk Regiment starts in 1685, when it was raised to support King James II against the rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth. It had a distinguished record as an infantry regiment in various parts of the world throughout Britain’s imperial heyday and the First World War. Deployments to India and Asia became a speciality of the Suffolks and in the first days of 1942 the Fourth and Fifth Battalions were part of the 85,000-strong garrison in Singapore, made up mostly of Indian troops and some Australians as well as the British. Japanese troops invaded from what was then Malaya on February 10 and after heavy fighting, the defenders surrendered on February 15. About 5,000 defenders were killed, many of them Australians, and most of the rest of the garrison was captured, among them the surviving Suffolks.

The next three years as prisoners of war of the Japanese were hell. The Suffolks were among the 60,000 allied prisoners forced by the Japanese to build the Burma-Thailand railway, a story immortalised in the 1957 movie, Bridge on the River Kwai. Indeed, Newmarket magistrates court clerk Harris carried similarities to the fictional Colonel Nicholson played by Alex Guinness in the film. Of the 60,000 POWs used by the Japanese as forced labour on the railway, over 13,000 died, among them 620 Suffolks, a majority of the members of the two battalions.

The Japanese treatment of their prisoners defied all the conventions of war and was brutal in the extreme. The treatment of subjugated peoples in the vast swathe of Asia captured by the Japanese was no better. Japan’s Imperial Army became the gold standard for the most gross inhumanity. It wasn’t always that way. There is nothing inherently inhumane in Japanese culture any more than Germans are inherently genocidal. When Japan decided in the late 1860s to emerge from its centuries of isolation and become an industrialised nation on the Western model, it also adopted many Western political and social values. Among these were the conventions governing the conduct of warfare, including the humane treatment of prisoners. Prisoners taken by the Japanese during its war with Russia in 1904, during the First World War and the first war with China in the 1920s were all treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

The boundless brutality crept in with the ascendancy of out-and-out militarists in the Imperial regime in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was at this time that the mistreatment of prisoners became entrenched, but so did the expectation that all Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen would fight to the death. Recruits were indoctrinated with the notion that if they were captured by the enemy they would be tortured or killed. The result was that until the closing months of the war, when Japan’s eventual defeat became obvious to all, relatively few Japanese soldiers were captured by the allies. Only about 25,000 Japanese were taken prisoner, most of those towards the end of the war. Others tried to surrender, but it became common among the allied troops to regard the Japanese as sub-human. Countless Japanese seeking to surrender were killed.

The hatred for the Japanese, among those who were their prisoners and many others caught up in the War in the Pacific, remains visceral to this day. The belief remains strong that Japan is still militarist at heart and the evidence produced is that Japan has not made the kind of abject apology made by German leaders for their country’s Nazi past. Yet in the decades since the war, various Japanese prime ministers, ministers and even the Emperor himself have given public expressions of remorse for the abuses and war crimes of their imperial forebears on at least 49 occasions. But few who had direct experience of the atrocities are mollified.

Two pressures have worked to raise questions about the sincerity of the Japanese apologies. One strand has come from the Japanese themselves. Some small ultra-nationalist groups have produced school history books that glorify Japan’s imperial era, and downplay or ignore the atrocities committed. These books are used, if at all, in very few private schools, but they are objects of massive international condemnation, especially from China.

The more questionable, persistent irritant is visits by political leaders to the privately-owned Yazukuni Shinto shrine, which memorialises those who died in the service of the emperor between 1867 and 1951. Of the nearly 2.5 million names contained in the shrine’s Book of Souls, over 1,000 are of people convicted of war crimes in the Second World War and 14 are Class A war criminals who were hanged.

What many find objectionable about Yazukuni is not the shrine itself, but a private museum behind the shrine. The displays and films at the museum cling to the old imperialist line that Japan’s foray into Asia was to free the region from western colonialism and to establish the “Great East-Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” There is no mention of the attrocities.

Japanese leaders, such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made a habit of visiting the shrine and enraging China every time he did, always say it is right and proper to acknowledge all those who sacrificed their lives for Japan. That’s all well and good, but it cannot avoid the reality that in many people’s minds the Yazukuni shrine is irredeemably tainted by the museum and the names of the Class A war criminals. A clever Japanese leader would have launched a campaign to build a new national shrine free of the Yasukuni’s smell.

The other pressures that have worked to cast down on the sincerity of Japanese apologies comes from outside. Some come from former POWs and their families and from people in countries occupied by Japan, especially South Korea, though, interestingly, not Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony for 50 years until 1945.

Beijing is never slow to rant and rave over any perceived indication of abiding Japanese militarism, whether it’s in school books or visits by leaders to the Yazukuni shrine. But in addition, for the Communist regime in China, inciting anti-Japanese sentiments among its people – including a campaign of indoctrination in schools – has become an essential element in promoting nationalism to justify authoritarian one-party rule. And it is not just at home that Beijing has worked to keep hatred of Japan alive. Its agents work world-wide, including in Canada, to promote organisations dedicated to defending Article Nine, the section of the United States-imposed constitution forbidding Japan from using its military forces overseas.

Chinese agents have also infiltrated organisations supporting surviving “comfort women,” who were either abducted or recruited in occupied countries to work in military brothels. Most of the people involved in these campaigns are, of course, entirely genuine in their mistrust of what they see as residual imperialism in Japan. But there are also Beijing’s agents prevocateurs, whose incitement of intemperate attitudes in these organisations make it difficult for Japan to address these questions. Most, if not all, surviving comfort women have been given compensation and formal apologies by the Japanese authorities. But because of the vehemence of the campaign on their behalf, the women find it impossible to acknowledge publicly the Japanese attempts at reconciliation.

Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, is faced with consigning Japanese militarism to history while re-interpreting Japan’s pacifist Article Nine. (Japan government photo)

Japan’s current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is having another crack on August 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, at finally drawing a line under the country’s imperial past. The context is difficult for him. As he tries to consign Japanese militarism to history, he is also working to re-interpret the pacifist Article Nine to allow Japanese forces to play a larger and freer role as an ally of the United States and other Asian nations. This is a pressing project in the face of a newly-assertive, expansionist and well-armed China, but sits uneasily against protestations of remorse for past militarism.

There is also a difficult nuclear context. There has always been a school of thought that because Japan was the first – and thus far, only – target of nuclear warfare with the attacks by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it too was a victim of the Second World War. Some critics see this as a handy excuse for those Japanese who want to lessen national responsibility for the imperial age. At the same time, there is a strong anti-nuclear weapons movement in Japan. That has spilled over into a movement opposed to electricity generation by nuclear power, which provided 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity. That movement got a huge boost after the 2011 destruction of three reactors at Fukashima after the earthquake and tsunami. All 43 of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down for inspection and upgrading, at huge cost to the economy. Inconveniently for Abe, the first upgraded reactor came back on line this week, the beginning of a revived Japanese dependency on nuclear power.

Abe intends to mark the anniversary by making yet another statement of national apology. But, unlike in the past, an enormous amount of preparation has been put into trying to ensure that it will be widely accepted as a genuine expression of Japanese remorse. Abe’s government knows there is no hope of getting Beijing to accept an apology. The Communists have too much invested in Japan-baiting in efforts to ensure their own survival. There is more hope of getting acceptance from South Korea, Japan’s former colony where there has been a revival of anger against Japan in the last couple of years. That anger has been led by President Park Geun-hye, who as the daughter of a dictator in the 1970s appears to feel it necessary to burnish her nationalist credentials by criticising Japan. Abe’s government has confronted Park head on and has negotiated with her office over wording she would find acceptable in the prime minister’s 70th anniversary statement. Whether this has been successful will be seen in the next few days.

In February, Abe appointed an advisory panel of the great and the good to suggest what the statement should contain. They reported on August 6 and suggested two lines of approach. One is to fully acknowledge the evils of Japan’s imperial era; its aggression against much of Asia, especially China, and the harm it caused millions of people throughout the region.

The second strand is to look forward and to emphasise that “based on deep remorse over the war, Japan has been reborn as a country that is completely different from what it was in the first half of the 20th century. Peace, rule of law, liberal democracy, respect for human rights, the free trade system, self determination, support for the economic development of developing countries are what characterise post-war Japan,” the report says.

Neither this nor what has emerged so far from Abe’s deliberations contains wording that is significantly different from what has been said nearly 50 times before. So it is unlikely that the 70th anniversary of the end of the War in the Pacific will be the end of the ill feelings towards Japan.

Shortly before I left Newmarket and returned to Canada in 1969 to join the staff of The Globe and Mail, Britain’s Ministry of Defence made new moves in the progressive amalgamation of regiments. The Suffolks had already been grafted with the Royal Norfolk Regiment, the Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire Regiment, and The Royal Leicestershire Regiment to form the Royal Anglian Regiment. In Newmarket, the remnants of the Suffolk Regiment was a detachment of the Territorial Army – a militia and reserves unit in Canadian parlance. The new order from Whitehall was that the detachment was to close down and all its functions moved to the slightly larger county town 20 minutes drive down the A45 highway, Bury St. Edmunds.

There was outrage in Newmarket. The spark for the outburst was not so much the loss of the territorial detachment. It was the contents of the locked room behind the parade hall, items the Ministry said had to be moved to the new regimental museum in Bury St. Edmunds. These were the regimental drums. For Newmarket’s veterans the drums represented terrors overcome and friends long gone. They might not see the drums often, but just knowing they remained stacked, as though ready for a regimental drumhead ceremony affirming brotherhood, at the back of the Territorial Hall was a source of comfort. The Ministry was knocked back on its heels.

Before the Suffolk battalions were taken prisoner on February 15, 1942, Sergeants Ron Kitson and Ernie Morgan, and a guard of 20 men wrapped the drums in oil skins and hid them in Singapore’s Goodwood Park Hotel. In 1946, after the war, the drums were found by a Red Cross welfare officer, Mary Taylor, and were returned to the regiment.

They are known, of course, as “The Singapore Drums.”


Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Further reading on F&O:

Shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, photo essay by Issei Kato, Reuters, August, 2015

China’s war for Asian domination going well, by Jonathan Manthorpe, April, 2015

 Japan deals itself in to the Asian poker game, by Jonathan Manthorpe, May, 2014

Beijing takes another major step to control the South China Sea, by Jonathan Manthorpe, May, 2014

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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