Last week, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong pleaded for Asian countries to essentially let bygones be bygones and put World War II behind them. Specifically, he said: "After 70 years, it is past the time to put this history behind us properly, like the Europeans have done. This requires statesmanship and largeness of spirit on both sides," Lee explained that the war "still casts a shadow over relations between the old adversaries, in particular between Japan and its neighbors, China and Korea."
But his keynote speech at the 14th Asia Security Summit draws a comparison between Japan and Germany that should be hard for Korea, China and the United States to swallow.
Without doubt, post-War Germany has moved onward to total acceptance by its European neighbors and the United States.
Nuremberg saw those generals directly involved in the war crimes sentenced to death. For those who fled, we saw the pursuit and prosecution of culpable SS officers into their old age. German police make swift work of Nazi skinheads who try to glorify that past. German school textbooks "tell it like it is."
There is no legitimacy on the streets in Germany in denying the Holocaust. Indeed it is against the law to do so. If we as Americans are repelled by this "violation of free speech," we should ask exactly what status Germany would have in the world today if Germany had not entered into this strict enforcement against Holocaust-deniers. To see that alternative consequence, we only need to look to Japan. For Japan is not Germany.
Many war crimes in the Pacific theater exceeded what occurred in Europe.
Japan held Korea under colonial rule from 1910-45, expanding through Manchuria and fully invading China in 1937. When Japanese troops met effective resistance, usually from Communist guerilla fighters, they were under the "three-all" policy of "loot all, kill all, burn all." When Doolittle flew his bombers on our first raid on Japan and ditched the planes on the China coast, the Japanese razed villages where any Chinese might have been suspected of helping them.
One-in-25 prisoners of war died while in German prison camps; one-in-three died in Japanese captivity. Many Japanese soldiers freely admitted that they felt they were a superior race, explaining that killing Chinese was no different from killing a pig.
Although there is no adequate way to compensate war victims, the German government has paid nearly $60 billion to Israel and 16 other countries in restitution. Japan has paid essentially nothing.
Yes, Japan did have the equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials. The International Military Tribunal of the Far East or "Tokyo War Crimes Trial" met beginning May 3, 1946. Seven Japanese "Class A" war criminals were found guilty and executed. But General Asaka whose "kill all captives" order started the Nanjing massacre never had to appear. General Ishii Shiro who ran a biological weapons lab that spread bubonic plague to 1.5 million Chinese never faced trial either. And the list goes on.
General MacArthur released or never brought charges against a wide range of high-ranking culpable officers, including the director of the Kempeitai or secret Japanese military police. In doing so, the United States set the stage for these ex-commanders to enter leadership positions in post-war Japanese industry, government and education, rising to ministry and cabinet positions. These individuals kept alive the fiction that there were no atrocities. Ishihara Shintaro, a leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, proclaimed that just because Germany apologized for killing the Jews was no basis for requiring the Japanese to admit anything wrong. A General Nagano Shigeto, appointed to their cabinet in 1994, asserted the Korean and Chinese "comfort women" forced to serve as sexual slaves to the army were merely prostitutes wanting to make money.
Japanese history textbooks go no further than to state that "The battle in Nanking was extremely severe. After Nanking fell, it was reported that the Japanese army killed and wounded may Chinese soldiers and civilians, thus drawing international criticism." At Japanese universities, some history professors participate in such revisionism, contributing to an academic "cover-up."
And still today, Japanese prime ministers continue to make official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine that holds the graves of many Japanese Class A war criminals. The German Chancellor would never pay tribute to a cemetery that held the graves of Hitler, Goebbels, or Goering.
In fairness to the Singaporean prime minister, he did state Japan "needs to acknowledge the past wrongs" and "Japanese public opinion needs to be more forthright in rejecting the more outrageous interpretations of history by right-wing academics and politicians."
Such interpretations would be outright illegal in Germany. But Japan is not Germany.