Letters from Tokyo

The US government has just declassified 100,000 pages of evidence of Japanese war crimes in World War 2. Archives press release.

Why did it take sixty years for this evidence to be declassified? A 240 page volume of introductory essays, Researching Japanese War Crimes, lays out the issues. From Edward Drea’s introduction:

Japanese war crimes committed in Asia and the Pacific between 1931 and 1945 concerned few Americans in the decades following World War II. Japan’s crimes against Asian peoples had never been a major issue in the postwar United States, and—with the notable exceptions of former U.S. prisoners of war held by the Japanese—even remembrance of Japanese wartime atrocities against Americans dimmed as years passed.1

American attitudes about Japanese war crimes changed markedly following the 1997 publication of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking.2 Chang’s moving testament to the Chinese victims of the sack of Nanjing in 1937 graphically detailed the horror and scope of the crime and indicted the Japanese government and people for their collective amnesia about the wartime army’s atrocious conduct. The bestselling book spurred a tremendous amount of renewed interest in Japanese wartime conduct in China, Korea, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.

The Rape of Nanking raised many issues that demanded further explanation. Why were the Japanese not punished as severely as the Nazis for their crimes? Did the United States suppress evidence of the criminal responsibility of activity by the emperor to ensure a smoothly running occupation of Japan? Did the U.S. government protect Japanese medical officers in exchange for data on human experimentation?

Chang also charged the U.S. government with “inexplicably and irresponsibly” returning confiscated wartime records to Japan before microfilming them, making it impossible to determine the extent of Japan’s guilt.3 Others were convinced that the U.S. government retained highly classified documents that would prove Japanese guilt beyond doubt and implicate the highest levels of Japanese government and society in the crimes.

These issues led concerned parties to investigate Japanese wartime records among the holdings at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland, and at other U.S. government agencies. Thorough documentation of Japanese war crimes and criminal activities among these holdings seemed unavailable, leading to speculation of an official cover-up. Suspicions that the U.S. government was deliberately concealing dark secrets were fueled when, instead of finding the records they sought, researchers encountered a card stating the records had been “withdrawn for security reasons,” as well as when they received a notice that requested information could not be located.

Motivated by Chang’s assertions, disparate groups who had struggled to raise
awareness of Japanese crimes and win justice for the victims were galvanized in their pursuit of answers and documentation. Armed with this latest evidence and capitalizing on a heightened consciousness in the United States about Japanese wartime crimes, victims and advocates pressed their cases with more determination and with greater popular and political support than had been the case in years prior. …

When confronted by advocacy and human rights groups, the Japanese government insisted these issues had been settled by stipulations of the peace treaty signed in San Francisco in September 1951.7 Nothing more needed to be said on the matter. Not only did Japanese authorities refuse to acknowledge any wartime responsibility, but several conservative politicians and senior bureaucrats went so far as to publicly denounce the accusations as groundless historical revisionism and Japan bashing. There was, of course, a domestic political dimension to the accusations (no candidate from the conservative ruling party could win an election by blaming Japan for a war of aggression), but the hardline official Japanese position created the impression in the United States that Japanese war crimes and related subjects such as war guilt or the role of Emperor Hirohito in the war were taboo subjects in Japan.

It will be many years before historians can sift through these documents and tell the story. The last of the guilty may be long dead by the time that happens. It will then rest upon the Japanese government to stop playing victim and to own up to their crimes.

Perhaps Clint Eastwood will then make another movie, to really ensure that the full story is told.