chapter  2
Owning the misdeeds of Japan’s wartime regime
ByFARID ABDEL-NOUR
Pages 15

Some of the worst horrors ascribed to Japan in the twentieth century, such as the Nanjing massacre, the Burma-Siam “Death” railway, and the sexual slavery of the “comfort women,” took place between 1937 and 1945.2 They were perpetrated by an imperialist, expansionist, military regime that has long since collapsed and been discredited. Japan’s postwar regime is peaceful and democratic. Since the 1990s, some of the surviving victims of Japan’s wartime regime and those who identify with them in Korea, China, and the countries of South East Asia have been making claims for acknowledgement, reparations, apologies, and compensation and have been receiving mixed responses. This chapter focuses on a fundamental question that implicitly underlies these claims and the manner in which they have been received. Do ordinary citizens of Japan have good reason to accept a burden of responsibility for the atrocities committed by the wartime regime, and to recognize themselves as the proper addressees of the claims made on behalf of the victims? There is a rift in Japan over the answer to this question.3

While some readily take ownership of the above misdeeds, accept responsibility for them, and recognize themselves as the proper addressees of the victims’ claims, others resist doing so. The repressive nature of the wartime regime and the generational changes that have since taken place constitute two conceptual difficulties that seem to challenge the position of those who accept responsibility and to give credence to the position of those who resist. The goal of this chapter is to overcome these two difficulties and lend support to the position of those in Japan who accept a burden of responsibility for the wartime regime’s misdeeds. Between 1937 and 1945, ordinary Japanese people who were not part of

the political leadership did not have any political decision-making power or any legal channels for genuine political dissent. Thus, even if we transport ourselves back imaginatively to August 15th, 1945, the day the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender on the radio, and focus only on the generation that was of adult age at that time, the question arises as to why ordinary Japanese people of that generation, bombed and broken as they were, should bear any responsibility for the misdeeds of a regime that had oppressed them. Following Karl Jaspers’ lead, I argue that, although it

would be harsh to blame the members of that generation en masse for what happened, they nonetheless bear a burden of “political liability” for the wartime regime’s misdeeds.4 After all, they did participate in the polity’s life at the time. After the collapse of the wartime regime, the possibility of political liberty became available in Japan. The availability of this possibility meant that subjects were to be transformed into citizens. This constitutes a challenge. Citizens must take seriously their participation in the life of the polity, including its immediate past in which they themselves participated. As a result, they have reason to retrospectively take on political liability for their polity under the wartime regime, and by extension to consider themselves the proper addressees of the claims made by its victims. Nevertheless, even if we accept that members of the wartime generation

had good reason to take on the burden for the wartime regime’s misdeeds, the question remains to be answered whether later generations can be expected to shoulder such a burden. Important bonds that connect members of these later generations to the wartime generation serve as pathways for transmitting its political liability to them. The wartime generation is the generation of beloved parents and grandparents with whom many today identify. It is also the generation of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose suffering has an important place in contemporary Japanese political consciousness. Furthermore, the notion of “postwar” remains central to Japanese political identity. These are all connections to the wartime generation that members of later generations of Japanese forge. Via these connections, the earlier generation’s burden is passed on to them, giving them reason to recognize themselves as proper addressees for the claims made on behalf of the wartime regime’s victims. The focus throughout the chapter is on the attitudes of ordinary citizens

and not on state policy. This is because state actions and statements, including state apologies, can only go so far if they do not express a popular mood, and because in the end the desired historical reconciliation is not only between states, but also between peoples. If greater and greater numbers of contemporary Japanese were to readily take ownership of the wartime horrors and accept a burden of responsibility for them, historical reconciliation between them and the peoples who identify with the wartime regime’s victims would be furthered. Admittedly, even if such an attitude were to become ubiquitous in Japan, it might not by itself suffice to satisfy the claims made on behalf of the victims. It would, however, be an important step in that direction. For, at the very least, it would contribute to ordinary Japanese citizens’ receptivity to the victims’ claims and to their sense of being these claims’ proper addressees.