Townspeople here cheered when the Chinese slave laborers, dressed in rags, eyes wild with hunger, were paraded back from the mountains after a failed rebellion and escape.
At the time, July 1945, many in this northern mining town thought the 800 slaves got what they deserved for killing several Japanese guards in their revolt: They were beaten, forced to kneel on the floor for days, and denied food and water. Scores were tortured to death. At the end of the war, only half the slaves were alive.
Yet the perpetrators got off lightly.
Three employees of Kajima Gumi, the construction company overseeing the workers, were sentenced to death and another to life imprisonment by the Allied war crimes court in 1948. But the penalties were later reduced, and all were released by 1955. The man responsible for laborers in the town is celebrated in a bust near where his charges were killed; the former camp now rests at the bottom of a pool of toxic waste.
The so-called “Hanaoka Incident,” in this hamlet 325 miles north of Tokyo, could easily enter the record as yet another example of how Japan has failed miserably to face up properly to the colossal slaughter of innocents as it conquered a wide swath of Asia in the 1930s and '40s.
Such perceived failures continue to keep Asia on edge even now, 60 years after the end of World War II. While some of the criticism is fueled by political opportunism stemming from present-day rivalry for pre-eminence in Asia, it is also driven by the deep wounds left by Japan’s march across the region.
'I feel nothing but remorse'
But there is another side to the Hanaoka story.
Yasuo Togashi remembers the bone-thin captives eating weeds as they were marched from the train station to their mining camp. As a boy of 9, he cheered with his neighbors when the escapees were recaptured.
Then, as he entered adulthood, he was overwhelmed with regret as he learned the details of what those Chinese endured, and he joined a group of townspeople who dedicated their lives to keeping those memories alive — and spreading the word.
“We were militaristic youth. We thought the Chinese weren’t even human, and we were happy when they were caught,” said Togashi, now 69 and a retired elementary school teacher, as he stood outside the train station where laborers were brought on their journey to Hanaoka.
“Now, I feel nothing but remorse,” he said. “I didn’t really understand it at the time, but as an adult, I was really shocked about it.”
That shock translated into action. Since the 1950s, Togashi and others have tried to set things right: They have built monuments, hosted survivors visiting from China and taught their schoolchildren about the past. The town holds annual remembrances of the victims. The outdoor sculpture of the smiling labor manager, Kyoichi Hatazawa, lists his civic accomplishments and never mentions the massacre. But 25 feet away stands a stone slab commemorating the Chinese dead.
The effort has gone beyond assuaging the guilty conscience of a town. Faced with a lawsuit by survivors, Kajima Corp. in 2001 agreed to pay about $4.5 million into a fund administered by the Chinese Red Cross to assist the families of the 986 Chinese who were brought to work in the mine.
“We have to make an apology from the heart,” Togashi said beside a monument to the victims put up in 1966 on a hill overlooking the former camp. “Even if they were not directly involved, people should feel regret about this. We have to make sure it never happens again.”
Many apologies, but to little effect
Few countries have apologized as often as Japan has for its war of aggression in Asia — and to so little effect.
Since the 1970s, Japanese prime ministers and even emperors have expressed varying degrees of regret and remorse — albeit sometimes in vague, nuanced wording — over the suffering caused by the war.
Just last April, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a bid to defuse a sudden upsurge of war-related tensions with China, offered this statement of remorse in a speech to an Asian summit:
“In the past, Japan through its colonial rule and aggression caused tremendous damage and suffering for the people of many countries, particularly those of Asian nations,” Koizumi said.
Tokyo’s commitment to peace goes beyond rhetoric.
The country’s U.S.-drafted constitution foreswears war to settle international disputes, and no Japanese soldier has fired a shot in war since 1945. Japan is the world’s No. 2 source of developmental aid in the world after the United States, and it has paid billions of dollars in reparations to nations it invaded.
Tokyo’s supporters say they should get more credit for this.
“History didn’t stop in 1945, and for 60 years Japan has been a generous donor around the world. They have been a very peaceful nation and peaceful with their neighbors,” U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer said recently. “People need to take that into account as well.”
Collective memory of immense brutality
Not all of Asia is clamoring for further demonstrations of atonement. Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, all conquered by the Japanese, have mostly come to terms with the war and are more interested in close, lucrative ties with the world’s second-largest economy than in dwelling on the wartime past.
Yet, with the approach of Aug. 15, the day on which Japan marks the end of the war, it is clearer than ever that its critics — its victims, and world opinion at large — still have nagging doubts about the depth of Japanese remorse.
Those doubts can erupt into violence, particularly in countries that bore the brunt of Japanese expansionism, China and the Koreas. Anti-Japan riots broke out in China this year, triggered by the Japanese government’s approval of a history textbook that critics say glosses over atrocities in the 1930s and 40s.
The reasons for those doubts are many.
One is the awesome scope of Japanese brutality: Tokyo had already colonized Taiwan and Korea, and in the 1930s it ravaged parts of China. At its wartime height, Japan’s empire stretched from deep in the Pacific in the east to Burma in the west.
The Japanese assault was merciless. Civilians were bombed, doused with biological agents, machine-gunned and subjected to cruel medical experiments; tens of thousands of women were forced into brothels for Japanese field troops; prisoners like those in Hanaoka were tortured, executed, starved or worked to death. Those horrors left an indelible stamp on the region’s collective memory.
Politics are another reason for the lingering resentment. The battle against Japanese aggression is a pillar in the Communists’ claim to leadership in China and North Korea. China’s government especially is prone to bolstering its own nationalist credentials by fanning anti-Japanese sentiment over the war.
But at bottom, the Japanese themselves have not decided yet how much remorse they feel, and that ambivalence is reflected in myriad ways that undermine their statements of regret.
Enshrining war criminals
On April 22, while Koizumi was apologizing for the war to fellow Asians in Jakarta, at least one member of his Cabinet and more than 80 Japanese lawmakers visited Yasukuni Shrine.
Established in 1869 to honor the spirits of the country’s war dead, Yasukuni was a bastion of the emperor-worship anchoring Japan’s imperialist ambitions in Asia. Those militarist credentials were further solidified in 1978, when executed World War II war criminals were enshrined there.
The shrine, its coterie of Shinto priests, and its supporters are among the loudest proponents of a decidedly unapologetic attitude.
At Yushukan Museum on the shrine grounds, visitors learn that the conquest of Nanking in 1937 meant that residents “were once again able to live their lives in peace” — an assault otherwise known as the “Rape of Nanking,” in which Japanese troops killed some 150,000 people. Chinese estimates run to some 300,000 dead.
The shrine’s administrators feel the international outrage over the shrine is simply a misunderstanding.
“The nation decides these people are war victims and are appropriate to be enshrined here, so we have no sense that we are enshrining criminals,” said Akio Saka, a Yasukuni priest and director of Yushukan Museum.
Conservative elite send nationalistic message
Koizumi has gone there to worship four times since his election in 2001, the last time in January 2004, and speculation is rampant in Japan that he will visit again this year.
Yasukuni is only one of many ways that the Japanese conservative elite — its politicians, the bureaucracy, the increasingly vocal right wing — weaken Tokyo’s penitent stance.
An increasingly powerful clique of nationalist educators, for example, is encouraging a rollback of mentions of Japanese atrocities from wartime accounts in public school history books.
Comic book artist Yoshinori Kobayashi has sold millions of copies of works that rant against both the United States and Japan’s neighbors, loudly claiming that Tokyo’s apologies for the war are humiliating.
Even the verdicts of the war crimes tribunal that functioned in Tokyo from 1946 to 1948 are being prominently questioned. Ruling party lawmaker Masahiro Morioka proclaimed in May that the convictions were illegal, prompting swift criticism from China.
A symbol of Japan as victim
In the south, 600 miles from Hanaoka, ground zero in Hiroshima symbolizes a view of the war long engraved in Japanese hearts: that of Japan as victim.
It was here, after all, that Japan faced the apocalypse of nuclear destruction in the blinding flash that wiped out the city on Aug. 6, 1945.
That a single bomb could kill 140,000 people — and another on Nagasaki three days later could kill 80,000 — obliterated from Japanese consciousness the history of much of what preceded it: Japan’s invasions of Asia, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Indeed, Hiroshima’s monuments are often criticized for lacking the context of the bombing, though the main museum here has been expanded and revised in recent years to include the history of the war and the city’s value as a military target.
But the rhetoric here focuses on how all wars are brutal, rather than on how imperial Japan behaved.
“For example in China, I know that we invaded, so I think that Japan did something that was not good. But if you use nuclear weapons, you don’t know whether humankind will be extinguished,” said Minoru Hataguchi, director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “We just want to say that atomic bombs should not be used.”
Outside the city there is the Holocaust Education Center, a museum founded by a Christian minister to teach Japanese about Nazi atrocities.
Its operators insist they are making no connection between the Holocaust and Hiroshima, but the museum’s location resonates deeply with the Japanese view of the bombings as a slaughter of innocents.
Its displays offer a broad context for Hitler’s rise to power and detailed information on the Final Solution, including a prominent section on a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who issued the visas that saved 6,000 Jews.
But nowhere does the museum mention that Japan was Germany’s ally during the war, or that Japanese soldiers, like the Nazis, perpetrated mass killings and medical experiments on human beings.
Akio Yoshida, the center’s deputy director, said such issues were far beyond the scope of the museum.
“This is our way of establishing peace in the hearts of the children of Japan,” he said.
Compared with Germany, Japan found lacking
The comparison with Germany is not a welcome one in Japan.
Whenever Japan’s perceived failure to fully atone for the war comes up, critics hold Germany up as the model of a repentant nation — and find Japan lacking.
Indeed, the Japanese have done nothing to match the image of Willy Brandt, then the West German chancellor, on his knees in atonement at the former Warsaw Ghetto in 1970. Germany has given billions in reparations and in payments to Holocaust survivors. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany.
Japan’s stock response has been to say that what the Nazis did — the extermination camps, the atrocities on an industrial scale — far overshadow the haphazard, disorganized way that Japan ran roughshod over its victims.
But a key to the difference between postwar Japan and Germany is that Japan still has not brought itself to fully renounce the prewar regime. The emperor system remains intact, and many important figures in wartime Japan were dusted off and brought back into power — one even becoming prime minister — after the American occupation.
Conservatives in Japan even go so far as to suggest that for Japan to renounce its wartime system is to renounce its own culture and identity.
“In a sense, they (the Germans) could put everything on the Nazis. They could say that the Nazis were bad, as if the people who did those things were a completely different people called Nazis,” Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said in Parliament in the spring when asked about the comparison.
“But you cannot apply such classification to Japan easily,” he added. “The circumstances were different, what happened before the war was different and what happened after the war was different. In that sense, I wonder if simply comparing Japan with Germany is right.”
But not everybody in Japan buys that reasoning.
For people like Togashi in Hanaoka, only openness and honesty will move the country beyond its tortured history.
Kiyoko Nakano, taking photographs with her husband one evening beside the ruins of the Hiroshima dome, draws the standard Japanese lesson from the bombing of her hometown: that all killing of innocents is a crime and should be condemned.
But, unlike many of her countrymen, she includes her own country among the list of criminals — and bitterly criticizes forces in Japan who have sought to obscure Japan’s wrongdoing.
“They always want to hide those bitter experiences,” she said. “But if we don’t face ourselves, Japan can never progress.”