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Home » Archives » August 2005 » "I Am Ashamed of What I Have Done."

"I Am Ashamed of What I Have Done."

Monday, August 15, 2005 Posted: 01:23 PM JST

Exactly 60 years ago, on August 15, Japan capitulated. Some 3 million Japanese had lost their lives. An estimated 15 million people lost their lives in the countries that Japan attacked. Do Japanese talk about this?

Ryutaro Honda (91) was soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army. In China he killed a POW with his bayonet. "If it had been a normal fight it might have been acceptable. But this was someone who could not defend himself..."

Had he refused his lieutenant's order, he would have been shot dead right there. "Although I was ordered to do this, it was still cruel to carry out this order. I am ashamed of what I have done."

Honda now tells this story to young Japanese. "This may never happen again."

Some 180,000 people have already heard Honda's story. he doesn't only give lectures, he also writes about his experiences, including the killing of the bound Chinese POW. Honda is not alone. Outside Japan it is thought the Second World War and Japanese war atrocities are being kept quiet, but this is far from the truth.

"It is being talked about so much," says Shuzo Yokoyama, journalist at regional newspaper Kobe Shimbun, "that you almost get sick of it." Yokoyama edits the letters of readers. Even now he is flooded with letters about WWII. Every day some seven letters are published.

One of the writers is Hatsumi Kobayashi (82), a former kamikaze pilot. The war ended before it was his turn. His essay won a prize. "All those things that were bothering me over the years, I wanted to digest. We believed that we were building a beautiful new world. But that was of course totally untrue."

The Osaka office of Asahi Shimbun, the second-largest newspaper of Japan with a circulation of 8 million, receives about 230 letters a day. "All year we have a special page with letters about the war," explains editor Seiichi Karino. "The theme that you see returning is a feeling of regret. 'Why did this happen? Why did we do this? Why was did decision taken? You see a lot of criticism of the war. We let ourselves do something incredibly stupid.' That criticism has increased enormously."

Japanese libraries are filled with books about WWII. At Osaka Central Library there are many thousands. Even books of former allied POW's translated into Japanese. Also, an enormously large number of diaries and essays written by normal people like Honda who write about their own experiences. They don't spare the reader, nor themselves.

The book "Witness by Soldiers of the Imperial Army at the Massacre of Nanking" contains a diary by former soldier Kihachi Ito. For December 17, 1937 he writes: "At one in the afternoon we had a triumphant entry of the City of Nanking. The evening I spent with the Fourth Company, which is based with the battalion. That night at the bank of the Yangtze River we shot dead about 20,000 prisoners of war."

Naturally there are also many former soldiers who do not want to talk about it. "We were the offenders," says Honda, "Of course you want to forget that notion. You are ashamed of it. Victims easily talk about their experiences. Offenders don't. People usually prefer to remember the fun things."

But it is the terrible things that let people realize how important peace is, believe many Japanese. "We want to show how terrible war is," explains Masahiko Mori. He is director of the Osaka Peace Center, a war museum. "We want to expose both sides. What Japan did when it invaded other countries. At the same time, the enormous damage of the fifty fire bombings of Osaka."

The museum does not hide behind platitudes. In the section about the Japanese invasion of China some horrible photographs are displayed. A decapitated head, Chinese citizens being buried alive, dozens of dead mothers and children. Some 90,000 people visit the center every year, about 70 percent of them elementary and high school students.

There are more than fifteen of such centers in Japan. Each cover another aspect of the war. Earlier this month a new center about sexual slavery was opened in Tokyo. It especially focuses on the "comfort women" of the Pacific War.

Many dozens of cities also maintain small monuments for foreign victims of the war. In the South Japanese city of Mizumaki there is for example a monument for the 871 Dutch POW's who died in Japan as forced laborers. Every year local citizens hold an emotional memorial.

Running up to the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, many Japanese broadcasters show documentaries and movies. A few days ago even the movie “Senso to Ningen” (“Battle of Manchuria” or “Men and War”) was shown. This impressive historical movie by Japanese director Satsuo Yamamoto contains countless scenes in which Japanese soldiers kill Chinese civilians, rape women, perform bayonet exercises on live POW's and more of such atrocities. The Rape of Nanking is mentioned using authentic material. There is no whitewashing here. And this movie dates from 1973, so it is not a new development.

So how did this image evolve that, in contrast with Germany, Japan does not discuss its own history? "Japanese do talk about this among themselves," says Kobe Shimbun journalist Yokoyama, "but not with foreigners. They don't speak English, and the foreigners speak no Japanese." There are also few foreigners who have mastered Japanese writing and read Japanese newspapers and books.

But the main cause is the large difference between central government and citizens in Japan and Germany. In Germany it is especially the central government that has been offering apologies and building monuments. In Japan it happens to be the government officials who express confused sentiments about WWII.

Columbia University PhD. candidate in history Petra Buchholz researched the difference. She found that, contrary to Japan, tales about the war written by unknown people hardly exist in Germany. "The virtual non-existence of tales about experiences at the front is particularly conspicuous," she writes in "Tales of War" (1995), "as just these kinds of war narratives constitute the majority of Japanese private tales of war. It is therefore difficult in Germany to find a similarly active attitude towards the personal contribution to public memory as found in Japan."

This "active contribution" of Japanese writing their own stories Buchholz calls "striking".

Keywords: national_news war_apologies opinion_item

Related Links:

  1. Sites about WWII at Japan Links
  2. List of Japanese War Apologies
  3. Excellent Discussion About Japanese War Apologies
  4. The Second World War and Japanese Historical Memory in Comparative Perspective
  5. The Original Recordings of the Interviews I Made with Dutch Journalist Matthea Vrij for this Article (Japanese and Dutch)

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1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 04:00pm on Oct 03 2005, Petra Buchholz wrote:
Dear Mr. Duits,
I have found your article through google, and was very pleased to see, that my findings about war tales of japanese soldiers are spreading now. I am continuing this research and would like to come in contact with you. Living in a small village north of Berlin, I will come to Japan in next April. I think it would be nice, if we could have a meeting then.
Best greetings
Petra Buchholz
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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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