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Japan looks back in anger and sadness

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The heavy metal door with a porthole belongs on a ship, not on a downtown karaoke bar surrounded by neon lights and staggering Japanese businessmen.

But this bar is different. It's a military song bar, where middle-aged men wearing white sailor's caps sing and clap along with old marches from World War II.

The men are Japanese. So are the marches. The white caps are from the Imperial Navy.

In a bizarre combination of good fun and bad taste, this shoebox-sized bar entertains its patrons with memories of a war that was over before most of them were born.

The walls are decorated with Japanese swords and Rising Sun flags. The bartenders ring a ship's bell and blow a bosun's whistle when they want attention.

Two television sets blast karaoke videos from laser discs. The Japanese lyrics are at the bottom of the screen. The pictures are newsreel footage of Japanese ships steaming in the Pacific or Zeroes flying in formation.

On one side of the room are racks of military uniforms for playing dress-up as Japanese naval officers or kamikaze pilots. Three sliding panels, painted with ships or tanks or airplanes, provide the appropriate background to match the uniform in a keepsake photograph.

Some of the men try to explain why they are here, but it's a three-way conversation with a translator, and everyone has to scream over the martial music.

They do not revere war, the Japanese men manage to say. They are not imperialists like those who drive soundtrucks all over Japan, shouting through bullhorns that the emperor is divine. They just love the old songs.

They are nostalgic, somehow, for a Japan they never knew, a Japan that met a brutal end.

A pacifist nation

Japan, says defense expert Makoto Momoi of Tokyo, is one of the few nations that truly has "learned the futility of using military power in solving disputes."

Japan's constitution, written by Americans after the war, says the Japanese people "forever renounce war." They seem to believe it. This is a deeply pacifist nation, skittish even about sending military engineers to help the United Nations' peacekeeping effort in Cambodia.

"Japanese believe economic prosperity is better than those shining weapons, if national pride is the goal," said Momoi, 70.

Yet it is not clear what lessons the Japanese have drawn from their war experience, beyond the pain of losing. War memorials portray the Japanese as bomb victims. Textbooks hardly mention Japan's invasions and atrocities in other Asian countries in the 1930s and '40s.

In conversation, many Japanese will speak with regret about the Korean "comfort women" who were forced into prostitution for the Japanese military. Japan recently has acknowledged and apologized for that.

But little is heard about the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March, about burning prisoners alive or eating them, about medical experiments or annexing Korea or invading Manchuria. The events still poison relations with Japan's neighbors in Asia.

"What we can't lose sight of is that there were people around the world who rejoiced when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima," said Hitoshi Motoshima, the mayor of Nagasaki.

The atomic bomb was dropped on his city, Nagasaki, on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after Hiroshima. In Nagasaki's Peace Park, chimes ring quietly every morning at 11:02, the precise moment the bomb exploded in a mushroom cloud above the city. Seventy-thousand people died within three months. Survivors faced a lifetime of physical suffering.

Motoshima, serving his fourth term as mayor, speaks eloquently for peace each year as Nagasaki observes the anniversary of the bomb and the end of the war a week later.

But on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1988, someone asked Motoshima whether he thought Emperor Hirohito, who was then on his deathbed, bore any responsibility for the war. Motoshima said yes, and all hell broke loose in Japan.

Motoshima was reviled, kicked out of the Liberal Democratic Party and, a year later, was shot by one of the right-wing imperialists who long for the old days. He never retracted his statement.

"I know that outside of this country, people all over _ North Korea, South Korea, China, Southeast Asia _ people believe the emperor shares some responsibility in the war," said Motoshima, 70, who has recovered and been re-elected. "But here in Japan, nobody has spoken about this fact."

One theory is that the Japanese had to wait for Hirohito to die before they could begin to discuss the war. Although the emperor is no longer considered a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, he remains a symbol of Japan.

"Even now, many people in Japan feel unconsciously that the emperor is God," Motoshima said in a recent interview.

Motoshima's position was always awkward. He is a Christian, rather rare in Japan, from a family of Hidden Christians who held to their faith despite centuries of persecution. "I had difficult moments as a child when I was pressed to answer the question, "Who do you think is greater, the emperor or Christ?'


But he was patriotic. As a young man during the war, he taught troops to die shouting banzai to the emperor.

After the war, Emperor Hirohito was portrayed in Japan as a peace-loving and democratic leader who had been unaware or unable to stop Japan's militarism. But common sense showed otherwise, in Motoshima's view.

"It is clear from historical records that if the emperor, in response to the reports of his senior statesman, had resolved to end the war earlier, there would have been no Battle of Okinawa, no nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he said in his 1988 statement.

Despite the outcry, Motoshima believes his statement broke a taboo against blaming the emperor for starting and prolonging the war. Motoshima eventually published a book of letters he received in support, many from Japanese who had suffered during and after the war. Like Japan's other victims, they would have liked to hear Hirohito take responsibility before he died.

Even now, Motoshima said, "Japanese have to make apologies to those people who suffered under Japanese aggression."

A force for self-defense

Japan today has a small, well-equipped military force that operates under the protective wing of the United States.

The Japanese army, navy and air force are very carefully referred to as the Self-Defense Forces. Vice Adm. Chaki Hayashizaki, stationed in Sasebo, said he would be fired if he ever called himself an admiral in the Japanese Navy.

Military service is a low-status job in pacifist Japan. Even Hayashizaki's wife and grown daughters aren't sure of his job.

"If even my own family doesn't understand, how can other people?" he asked in sorrow and frustration. "In Japanese education, the word military refers to things only before 1945. The image of the military is that it's something bad that went into China and Korea and did evil things."

Questions about Japan's war responsibilities draw a variety of answers.

Kiyoaki Kikuchi, who was a naval officer on Taiwan during the war and later became Japan's U.N. ambassador, is tired of hearing that Japan should apologize.

"We've been doing that in the past 45 years and people say, "Not enough, not enough, not enough, not enough,'

" he said.

Then he started talking about the Korean comfort women, unconsciously illustrating the recalcitrance that so frustrates Japan's former victims.

To begin with, he said, Korea was not a colony, it was a part of Japan. The comfort women were all prostitutes before the war anyway. And providing Japan's army with its own brothels was better than raping local girls. Those women have nothing to complain about.

"It's not like forcing laborers," he said. "They got paid, you see."

World War II remains a strong part of Japan's identity, and many Japanese believe it was justified, said Takashi Inoguchi, a professor of international relations at Tokyo University.

Their attitude is that they stood up to Western pressure, tried to wage war and lost. Any misconduct in the '30s and '40s was something they were forced to do. Pearl Harbor was attacked after America cut off Japan's oil. The war ended badly, but Japan was not colonized, and it has had 50 years of peace and prosperity.

"That's why Japanese repentence has not come so easily," Inoguchi said.

Even Japanese who are willing to apologize believe war guilt is a two-way street.

Senji Yamaguchi was 14 years old, digging an air raid shelter outdoors, when he saw the bomb flash over Nagasaki. He woke up in the hospital 40 days later. The burn scars are still visible on his hands and face; one ear is curled and small.

Bomb survivors have suffered not only from medical problems and sterility, but from discrimination, said Yamaguchi, now president of the Atomic Bomb Survivors Association. He was denied a job and was refused a marriage proposal because of it.

Japan provides free medical care for bomb victims, but Yamaguchi's group has appealed to the Japanese government to take responsibility for the war.

"I think Japan's government should apologize to East Asia and China, and then we must start compensation to the victims of the war," he said.

"Japan has a responsibility for attacking Pearl Harbor. So I'm of an opinion that Japan must apologize for attacking Pearl Harbor.

"And I believe that for dropping the bomb, America should apologize to Japan."

America has never done that. Most recently, President Bush declined to apologize on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1991.

America's reasons are the same as those expressed by many Japanese. We were standing up to aggression. We did what we had to do.

_ Information from In the Realm of a Dying Emperor by Norma Field was used in this story.