Saturday, December 03, 2005

H-Asia Discussion on Japan, China, and War Guilt

There's a fantastic discussion on H-Asia, the scholarly Asia list on Japan, China, and War Guilt. Here's the latest installment.

From: Qin Shao
Dear Colleagues,

The H-ASIA exchanges on Japanese manga has led to a continuation of the on-and-off discussion on the list concerning Japan's wartime past and its enduring impact. The most recent extensive such postings were back in July on the Manchu conquests and war crimes. Almost invariably, such discussions, regardless of their specific origins, have brought out larger issues about the war and responsibilities, and have caused tension and debate within the H-Asia community, which underscore the complexity and depth of the issue.

Thanks to Prof. Wah Cheng's post that poked open what he considered a "discursive divide between Chinese and -- a group of largely Western scholars" over the issue of Japan's role and responsibility in the war (please see his original text on H-Asia, 11/28/05), a subject that is usually difficult to talk about, we now have another chance to visit not only the issue of the war but also perhaps ourselves both as scholars and as human beings. In light of this, I decided to take the time to write this piece to reflect on a number of recurring themes, missing links, and puzzling questions in our past discussions.

H-Asia's recent posts on Menzies' work and Chang and Halliday's _Mao_ have made it abundantly clear, once again, that the first rule of academic perspective is to respect historical facts. And the wartime history testifies to the fact that Japanese military "invaded, colonized, exploited, and butchered" not just Japan's Asian neighbors. I suppose that "butchered" is the word that causes the most discomfort here. Prof. Wheeler's post has helped shed light on this (H-Asia, 11/29/05). After all, the Tokyo tribunal did take place which, together with military tribunals throughout Asia, convicted and executed more than nine hundred war criminals who were not just ordinary invaders and colonialists, and again, who committed atrocities against not just Asians. John Dower's _Embracing Defeat_ includes a photo where a Japanese nurse was found guilty of "eating the liver of an American airman executed at Kyushu University, where vivisections were performed on POWs" (Norton 1999, p. 446).

Such was the past, itself highly emotionally charged, and the worst kind of human tragedy for all involved, including the Japanese; writing about and reading such a history is of course an emotional experience for all. And this goes beyond the written word--images of the Nanjing Massacre, the Pearl Harbor attack, and the doomed Hiroshima--all are extremely difficult to watch for anyone. But they continue to be viewed whenever it is appropriate because these stories must be told. Just as it is legitimate for scholars to write about history, however brutal, it is legitimate for people to have an emotional reaction to it. Perhaps we can accept both, because the alternative doesn't seem to be productive or even realistic.

One point often missing in H-Asia's discussions of the war responsibility issue is what serves the best interest of Japan. Japan's past, however unbearable, doesn't have to be a liability, but Japan's handling of it could be. Given Japan's increasingly close economic ties with China, its grave labor shortage ahead, and its ambition for a future seat at the U.N. Security Council, Japan has good reason for its own sake to do consistently better in facing its past than it has done (a case in point is Education Minister Nariaki Nakayama's handling of the "comfort women" issue in Japanese textbooks-- see the _Asahi Shimbun_, 7/12/05), both in and outside Japan.

In July when the H-Asia discussion on Japan's war responsibilities was going on, two relevant incidents took place within Japan. One was about 200 ethnic Koreans in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, initially forcibly brought to Japan by the Japanese government to help built a military airport during WWII, who now faced eviction in a series of rulings by the Supreme Court for illegally occupying the land This case led to a U.N. investigation which concluded that Japan "must acknowledge its racism" (_The Japan Times_, 7/6/05, p. 2). The other concerned a nationwide damages suit brought about by 2,000 Japanese "war orphans" left in China at the end of WWII, who returned to Japan decades later and now demanded compensation from the government. Their law suit was rejected, and in one case a judge denied that the government had any legal obligation to help the orphans because their suffering was part of the war damage which "must be accepted equally by the nation" (_The Japan Times_, 7/7/05, p. 1).

Outside Japan, much has been said about the Chinese government's involvement in the anti-Japanese protest in China in spring 2005. But that the Chinese government was able to manipulate the public in targeting Japan is in itself a case worth pondering (I'm of course not implying that what the Chinese government did was acceptable). Clearly, domestically and internationally, it is in the best interest of Japan for its government to recognize more fully, openly and consistently, in words and actions, the impact of the war, and to help unburden its own people and its overseas victims of the pain of reliving the past, so that Japan as a nation could gain greater freedom to move forward to fulfill its tremendous potential. I can't overemphasize that most Japanese people are peace-loving with an admirable human spirit and deserve to have a clear conscience about their past. But it won't happen if the Japanese government continues to be ambivalent about facing the past squarely.

I too share Prof. Cheng's impression that discussions of the topic on H-Asia has often placed the Chinese on the defensive. Yet I have not got a clear message as to what exactly the Chinese did was illegitimate or any constructive suggestions to the Chinese as to how they could be better victims. Much of the "wrong doings" of the Chinese seemed to be implied by mentioning some of the occasional extreme incidents. But a few destructive incidents in a country of 1.3 billion people provide insufficient ground to dismiss their profound suffering in the war and their feelings about it. That the Chinese are emotional about the war doesn't mean they can't also
behave responsibly--most of them do. The dichotomy of "emotion vs. reason" is perhaps another problematic legacy of the Enlightenment era as the two aspects are not necessarily mutually exclusive (we will learn more about this subject as the current trend develops to make emotion in social change a legitimate topic for scholarly research in both the humanities and social sciences).

Or should the victims of the Holocaust serve as a model for the Chinese victims? But Holocaust survivors continue to be vigilant about the Nazi past and no one seems to be impatient with or critical of them. As Prof. Cheng mentioned, the point that "Chinese victimization of Chinese was more horrendous and sustained" is equally puzzling to me. Surely, the Chinese have suffered under their own governments and from each other (Americans too, from the slavery system to what was exposed recently by Hurricane Katrina) during civil wars and under Mao. But examples of elf-inflicted pain such as these do not make foreign invasions any less unjust-- just as the bombing of Oklahoma City by home-grown terrorists doesn't give a mandate to overseas terrorists to attack us on 9/11.

To the Chinese, the wartime past is still very much present. For one thing, the leak of poison gas in China from chemical weapons abandoned by the imperial Japanese army after WWII has, as recently as June 2005, killed and injured Chinese, including schoolboys, from the southern city of Guangzhou to northeastern China where most of the 700,000 artillery shells were said to be buried. While Japan has apologized to China for these accidents and is required by the international Chemical Weapons Convention to dispose of chemical weapons left in China by 2007 (_The Japan Times_, 6/28/05, p. 3), some of the Chinese victims from these and other cases have taken the matter into their own hands and brought lawsuits against Japan for individual compensation.

The issue of individual compensation has hardly been touched on in H-ASIA's discussions, for good reason. Overall it is a messy, massive, and expensive issue and the Chinese government bears partial responsibility. But the fact remains: the Chinese, such as those directly affected by the Nanjing Massacre and the poison gas leaks, have not been compensated as individual victims by Japan. In recent years, their lawsuits have involved Chinese protests in Japanese streets and have been supported by some Japanese lawyers and citizens. Today the Chinese are more than ever aware of their rights as consumers, as property owners, and also as victims. According to _Wen Hui Bao_, a Shanghai newspaper, one Chinese woman named Wang Xuan has led a group of 108 Chinese victims in a lawsuit against Japan for the past eight years, termed as another "eight-years of anti-Japanese war" (7/18/05, p. 4). One can probably expect such lawsuits and related Chinese protest in Japan to continue, serving as a constant reminder of a badly wounded past that still bleeds. Yet official response, whether from Japan, China, or the U.N, has largely been silence. Only time can tell whether ignoring the issue is a solution to it.

So why have some of the discussions on H-Asia seemed to put the Chinese on the defensive and been critical about their feelings? An act of friendship toward Japan? But is it not in the interest of Japan to take full responsibility for its past? A reflection of the Cold War mindset? A replay of the "good Asians" and "bad Asians" mentality except this time with China and Japan in switched roles? What does this mentality say about us? I could be completely wrong in asking this line of questions, and I sincerely welcome insight from colleagues to hopefully give some clarity to some of these reoccurring issues.

What is perhaps relatively clear is that behind the veil of political correctness prejudice of various kinds--racial, political, national, cultural, and historical-- is as prevalent as the air we breathe. Even among the best educated, the most intellectually enlightened and culturally cosmopolitan, there seems little sanctuary, because we are a product of our time. Often we (myself included) denounce prejudice intellectually but act upon it subconsciously. If we could be intellectually honest, vigilant, and humble enough to examine ourselves as closely as we examine others or "the other," perhaps our discussions on the war would help produce a more meaningful past as well as a more civil, just, and enlightened future.

Qin Shao
The College of New Jersey


Sun Bin said...

thanks for posting this, michal.

btw, what is H-Asia? :)

Michael Turton said...

H-Asia is the scholarly list for Asian scholars. It does not usually have discussion, but simply notifies of conferences, jobs, resources, etc. Are you aware of the ListServ system that houses most of the acaedmic email lists?


Sun Bin said...

no, i am out of the academic circle for quite a while, unfortunately. :(