Japan Need Not Apologise

It would not be right for the country to apologise to regimes little better than that of WWII Imperial Japan

Recently, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe expressed "deep repentance" for Japan's actions in World War Two. It was the latest in a long series (20, just counting from the year 2000) of formal apologies the country has offered, and it was expressed - both appropriately and inappropriately - at a joint session of the United States Congress. Appropriately, because America was Imperial Japan's main foe, and as a civilised country it is qualified to receive apologies from another civilised country. Inappropriately, because the United States has more to apologise to Japan for than Japan has to apologise to America for.

Who Japan Owes No Apologies To

First of all, it should be pointed out that Japan owes no apologies whatsoever to any European nation for its actions in WWII. Nazi Germany was but a distant ally of Imperial Japan; the country played no role in the European war theatre. The fact that Japan had friendly relations with Hitler's Germany is beyond the point - fascism at the time was a hugely popular new politics, and there were pro-German fascist political parties everywhere from Ireland to India, including one which came to power in Spain, and one which didn't in Britain. Nearly all of these parties were pro-Nazi Germany. That in itself is not a crime, regardless of the crimes committed by the Third Reich.

The fall of Nazi Germany didn't mean the fall of Imperial Japan, although both were allied against the same enemies. The Pacific War, more accurately called the Asia-Pacific War raged on after Germany's defeat..

The Real Pacific War

There are two versions of the Pacific War, a war fought mostly by Imperial Japan and the United States: the first, and by far the best-known, is the semi-fictional version told by the victors. Due the America's massive worldwide media influence, this is the one most people are more familiar with. It has been re-told through countless Hollywood productions, and it invariably portrays the Japanese as mindless militaristic aggressors, hell-bent on conquering all of Asia and the Pacific. Prior to Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers in 2006, no American-made feature film had succeeded in portraying the Japanese as normal human beings, and to this day no successful US-made film or book has focused on the true facts of America's participation in WWII.

These are the facts of US involvement in WWII: Looking first at the Western Front, the Battle of Britain, in the Autumn of 1940, can be viewed as the first turning point in the Second World War in Europe; Germany was prevented from gaining air superiority over the UK, which was required to launch an amphibious and airborne invasion. At the same time, Britain, supported by Canada (which declared war against Germany several days after Britain), stepped up its operations in the Atlantic against German submarine fleets, and most of the work involved in clearing the sea-lanes of the German threat, which would pave the way for the later Invasion of Normandy, was carried out by the British and Canadian navies.

Looking at the Eastern Front, a week before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, and America's consequent decision to enter the war, the Battle of Moscow can be regarded as the second turning point in the war against Germany. It had pushed German troops back by over 320 kilometres, with huge causalities - nearly 900,000 Germans dead, injured, captured or missing in action. Germany's rapid retreat westwards was already underway. At the same time, huge swathes of territory had been won back from Axis troops in North Africa. By the time of American president, Franklin Roosevelt's declaration of war on Japan, Germany's defeat was already a certainty; the only questions remaining pertained to the circumstances of this defeat: would it be total or negotiated, and how much territory would Germany be allowed to keep?

America felt it had - relatively - little to lose by joining the war. It's focus would not be the European theatre in any case, but the Asia-Pacific theatre. On the other hand, it had much to lose by not joining Britain, Canada, and the free forces of the various occupied European nations. It would not be entitled to reap the spoils of war, nor to "win the peace which will follow the war", as Roosevelt put it.

The United States has never had to fight a war for its survival in the same way as many European nations have, and thus it has never - even now, in the 21st century - had to enter a military conflict where it didn't believe the odds were overwhelmingly stacked in its favor. America certainly didn't believe fighting against Japan would be anything remotely like fighting against Germany.

Most Americans at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor felt the Japanese to be an inferior people, and few felt any qualms at seeing second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans rounded up and put in what Roosevelt himself called "concentration camps", even as the same thing was happening to Jews in Europe. In fact, the American military top brass didn't even believe the attack on Pearl Harbor could have been devised by the Japanese; they felt the raid had to have been planned by the German military on Japan's behalf. The United States didn't realize how difficult the fighting against Japan in the Pacific would be. (Britain did, as the country had been largely responsible for teaching the Japanese how to build aircraft carriers and fly planes off them, as such technical skills and knowledge were transferred to Japan under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.) By 1941, Japan's navy was the world's most powerful, and among the aerial weaponry Japan boasted was the Mitsubishi Zero fighter, which would prove superior to any fighter the US had in its arsenal.

Immediately after the raid on Pearl Harbor, America retaliated in a similar fashion to Japan's strategic masterstroke at Pearl Harbor. In what was called the Dolitttle Raid, 16 US Army Air Force bombers attacked military installations in the Japaese home islands. It was one of the few bombing raids deliberately targeting military installations that was in large part successful. Thereafter, as American frustration with lack of progress and unwillingness to risk lives set in, US air raids turned to 'bomb anything' mode, which would later becomes the modus operandi for bombing other Asian nations.

Of course, by the time the Pacific War was entering its final stages, America was only too familiar with the kind of foe it was up against. Even in 1945, Japan was not an enemy which could be taken on on equal terms. To hasten Japanese demoralization, America stepped up bombing raids on civilian population centres in the home islands, one raid of which (Operation Meetinghouse) on the 9th to 10th of March, 1945, was later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history.

Almost 90% of the bombs dropped on the home islands of Japan were delivered by the B-29 Superfortress strategic bomber, flying at a safe altitude of anything up to 9,000 metres. These bombers were later estimated by The Tokyo Fire Department to have killed 97,000 people, and left 125,000 wounded.

Although indiscriminate bombings of urban areas are not normally – even today - called 'massacres' or 'act of terrorism', that's what they are to the victims. Never was there any controversy over Washington's lack of apologies for the firebombings of Japanese cities; quite the contrary. This style of warfare - aerial mass murder of civilian populations - would come to empitomise the US approach to fighting against resolute enemies like the Japanese; a kind of attempted genocide, born of frustration at not making the land advances the country felt it had to, and unwillingness to risk American lives. Later, in South-east Asia, this frustration drove America to 'carpet-bomb' civilian areas of Vietnam, as well as (neutral) Cambodia and Laos, killing, wounding or making homeless an estimated 6 million people over a 4-year period.

The firebombing of Japanese cities was rounded off with Washington's orders to drop atom bombs on two major Japanese population centres, with full knowledge of the expected results. And also the full knowledge that the Japanese civilian victims would not know what had happened. These particularly massacres would result in tens of thousands of civilians dying painfully slow deaths over the subsequent weeks, months and years.

How can the United States be among the countries receiving these oft-repeated apologies from Japan? Japan had paid the price for its strategic attack on Hawaii dozens of times over by the time the Pacific War ended.

That was the part of the Pacific War which led to Japan's defeat. But Japan's principal victims of aggression were further east on the Asian mainland..

Who Japan Still Owes More Apologies To

Japan does still owe apologies to its Asian neighbours, particularly China, principally for the Nanjing Massacre and its infamous germ warfare laboratories, of which the largest was Unit 731, in Manchuria. It is estimated that 1,000 staff were employed in these facilities in total, carrying out experiments on hundreds of thousands of human victims, mostly (around 70%) Chinese, but also including men, women and children from Korea, and the occupied states of south-east Asia. 'Experiments' ranged from infecting prisoners with plague, cholera, smallpox and the like to weapons testing on live victims to study the effectiveness of grenades and flame throwers from various distances. Interestingly, the United States, usually so vociferous on the subject of bringing (non-American) war criminals to justice, gave immunity to these Japanese researchers in exchange for their data on human experimentation.

Apart from the Nanjing Massacre, there were also numerous massacres which took place in China and other east Asian countries during WWII. But the victims of these massacres ranged from dozens to several hundreds, more on the same scale, or smaller, that the My Lai and other massacres committed by US troops in Vietnam. Interestingly, the United States, usually so vociferous on the subject of bringing (non-American) war criminals, didn't find it appropriate to follow up investigation of many of the smaller massacres it committed in Vietnam. Even in the case of May Lai, in which over 500 civilians were killed, while 26 men initially were charged, only one, a Lieutenant Calley was convicted, and made to serve the awful punishment of three and a half years under house arrest.

Again, Japan owes no apologies to America. And while it can be argued that it hasn't apologised enough to Asian countries, no apology should be given to China, or in China.

It would be a travesty for what has now long been a free and fair, modern state, with the rule of law and all the other trappings of democracy to apologise to a thuggish regime like the one in power in Beijing, a regime little better now than that of Imperial Japan 70 years ago. While China was once a victim of Japanese aggression, the 21st century scenario could not be more different. Now it is China which throws its weight around in the region, intimidating its neighbours and claiming their territories.

Since the establishment of the Peoples' Republic of China in 1950, China has stolen territories from India, Russia, and Korea, and in 1980 it fought desperately in a failed attempt to steal land from Vietnam. The country has swamped Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang (East Turkestan), and the ethnic minority lands of its south-west with Han Chinese migrants in an attempt to obliterate their distinct identities, and it has invaded and annexed Tibet and is currently in the process of doing the same thing there. Its extravagant maritime territorial claims include territories belonging to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, and it has apparently already succeeded in stealing islands belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines. Its claims to territory in the South China Sea reach to within 100 km of the Indonesian coast and they have soured relations with the ASEAN bloc, but not to the point where the country sees any need to change course, and at the time of writing, China is pushing its policy of brinkmanship with military flight incursions over South Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese airspaces. It poses a constant military threat to Taiwan, which it claims as a PRC province, and has done so for well over half a century. It has also openly reneged on promises made to Britain in the Sino-British Joint Resolution of 1984 to allow democratic politics in Hongkong, and not only imprisons and tortures anyone who openly expresses dissent within the PRC, and persecutes their families, but also outlaws any religious or spiritual movement not under its direct control. It has a shoot to kill policy to counter the flow of Tibetans attempting escape over the Himalayas to India, and regularly uses live fire to quell public demonstrations, the most infamous of which was the internationally televised 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which to this day it denies even happened.

And some people think Japan should apologise to a regime like this? They cannot be serious.

There are some who believe that Japan should express its apologies to Taiwan for the atrocities committed by Japanese troops against Chinese civilians, as Taiwan is the inheritor of the Nationalist Chinese government in power in China during WWII. But this is also a bad idea. While the Nationalists did flee to Taiwan after the war, the island had long been a part the Japanese empire by that time. Many Taiwanese fought bravely during WWII. But most were fighting FOR Japan; almost 200,000 in total.

South Korea, though also a part of Imperial Japan during the war (but not for as long as Taiwan), is more insistent on receiving Japanese apologies than Taiwan. But, here we have the same problem: any apology made by Japan should be an apology to the Korean people. If any government in Asia is less qualified to receive apologies from Japan than China, it is the barbaric regime in power in Pyongyang. How could Japan apologise to a regime that, even today, values human life so little that it is willing to keep much of 'its' population on the brink of starvation in order to stay in power?

While many of the states of the ASEAN bloc have made huge strides towards becoming free and fair, democratic countries (and Myanmar is at least heading in the right direction), the resistance to political and social reform in China and North Korea has ensured that no more meaningful apologies for Japan's actions during WWII can be given to all of Imperial Japan's Asian victims. Looking at the way things are going, it seems likely that by the time these regimes finally collapse, WWII will have faded from living memory, and relevance.