Remembering the Victims of War

A first attempt at an Opinion Piece - make of it what you will!



Many Japanese politicians, including the former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and several of his successors, have drawn criticism from within their own country and beyond, for their insistence on paying their respects at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to the souls of the several million soldiers who have died in the wars that Japan has waged. Koizumi claimed at the time that he did not understand why neighboring countries should complain about what he believed to be a wholly internal issue. His successor Shinzo Abe is currently in the eye of the storm over whether he will visit tomorrow.


More recently, Osaka Mayor Hashimoto has attracted attention and scorn for his comments about the forced prostitution that was carried out during and after World War Two. His attitude also betrays one of the fundamental problems of that time and of that way of thinking. 


On the one hand, it is fully right and proper that the leading representative of Japan's government should pay his respects to the many of its citizens who have given their lives in the name of the causes for which their government has selected to fight. War is, in the simplest possible analysis, the failure of politicians to achieve their objectives, or resolve their problems, by any other peaceful or diplomatic means. (It is often, of course, much more complicated than this.) Thus it is right that Japan's politicians should apologize to those of their citizenry whose lives were lost as a result of those failures. 


However, the Yasukuni shrine is a temple dedicated to, and enshrining only soldiers who gave their lives in the name of Japan and its Emperor. It does not include or represent the many civilian Japanese who also became victims as a result of Japan's political failures. It is not only soldiers who have suffered as result of the Japanese government's forays into foreign territory. It is not only Japanese who have died at the hands of those soldiers. Japan has a responsibility to apologize, and express its regret, to the millions who have died and otherwise suffered at the hands of the Japanese military, both at home and abroad.Only those who gave their lives during that war in the service of the Imperial Army and Navy are enshrined in Yasukuni, but there is no memorial to the millions who died at their hands, and the millions more, who never wore a uniform, who died at the hands of Japan's enemies. 


On his visit to Khazakstan, Koizumi visited a memorial to the Japanese prisoners of war who were forced to work in mining and construction after being captured during the Second World War. Does he not know that the Japanese military used thousands of forced laborers from Asia and Europe? Does he not know that the Japanese courts even today refuse to acknowledge those people's suffering and provide compensation? His lop-sided view of the past, shared by many in Japan's government, which apparently refuses to recognize the suffering of non-Japanese on the same level as that of the Japanese, is a fundamental cause of the hostility towards Japan stirred up by Japan's actions on this issue. 


Similarly, Hashimoto's assertion that so-called "Comfort Women" were a "necessity" of wartime is an assertion that the suffering of civilians in wartime is secondary to the discomfort of soldiers; that civilians are also expected to bear a burden in wartime, but only the soldiers should get any reward for their sacrifice.


The problem is not solely that Japan, and its leaders, have not fully faced up to their past. Part of the problem is that they have not accepted the damage they have caused to the civilian populations of their neighboring nations and of Japan itself. 


If Japan's prime minister and politicians wish to visit the Yasukuni shrine without domestic and international criticism, they should also pay their respects to the civilian casualties within and outside Japan as well, who have suffered just as much as those enshrined in Yasukuni, but who never had the chance to choose that sacrifice, or bask in the honor and glory that those in Yasukuni enjoy.


All the civilian casualties of war are forgotten or ignored, simply because they did not sign up to suffer in advance. Their deaths were incidental; secondary to the sacrifice of the soldiers who died following orders, even though in many cases their deaths were a direct or indirect result of those orders being carried out. It seems that the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, by virtue of their being involuntary, lack the romance of the sacrifice made by men in uniform, even if that sacrifice was not completely voluntary. 


One reason for this may be that the citizens were, in most cases, involuntary participants in the war that went on around them, so they can not be used to mysticise or edify the cause for which their lives were lost. Their sacrifice is therefore inconvenient, not only for those who rally to war, but also for those who peddle the image of Yasukuni as a place of peace, of repose, for the souls who made the ultimate sacrifice. Because for many, it is neither. 


This argument is, of course, not limited to Japan, but today, it is relevant to Japan. I make this argument not to condemn Japan, but to advise it, that it may improve its relations with its neighbours. I do not wish to dwell on the past, but work towards the future.

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