As 2015 marks the 70th year since the end of World War II, there are increasing opportunities at home and abroad to address the subject of how to view Japan’s prewar and wartime history.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to issue a statement this summer as the nation’s top political leader. While mindful of Japan’s soul-searching on its wartime past as demonstrated 50 year after the war’s end in a statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama as well as on the 60th anniversary by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the forthcoming statement by Prime Minister Abe is expected to deliver Japan’s messages both at home and overseas centering around such “future-oriented” principles as international cooperation and proactive contribution to peace, on the basis of the path the nation has followed in the seven decades since the war as a peace-loving country.
Needless to say, it is a prerequisite for a future-oriented discourse to properly take into account our reflection on Japan’s conduct before and during the war.
In 2005, just 10 years ago, The Yomiuri Shimbun established an in-house investigative panel — the War Responsibility Reexamination Committee — to address this task, following a proposal made by Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman of the board and editor-in-chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings.
The panel explored the Manchurian Incident and the subsequent expansion of conflict into the Sino-Japanese War that eventually led to the outbreak of the Pacific War, while it also reexamined the responsibility of the war era’s political and military leaders.
The findings of the reexamination were published, over a period of about one year, in the form of special feature articles in The Yomiuri Shimbun. The articles carried in the newspaper were compiled into a book, “Kensho: Senso Sekinin” (Examining war responsibility), published by Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc. in 2006. Later, English and Chinese editions were also published.
Ten years have passed since then. With the discussion of how to view history intensifying again, The Yomiuri Shimbun believes that once again making public what we pointed out in this book will provide the public with useful food for thought concerning the 70 years since the end of the war. With this belief, we have established a special website for the book.
We hope our making the book public once again on the website will help the public discussion on historical issues become deeper and more fruitful.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
From the foreword by Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman of the board and editor-in-chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, of “From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor: Who was Responsible?”published by The Yomiuri Shimbun in 2006, translated from the original Japanese book “Kensho: Senso Sekinin.”
From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor—The Marco Polo Bridge (Lugouqiao) Incident, which was preceded by the Manchurian Incident of 1931, ultimately erupted into the 1937-45 Sino-Japanese War. A series of conflicting approaches to the war in China by Japan and the Western Powers emerged as one of the causes of the 1941-45 Pacific War, which began with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Yomiuri Shimbun has published a pair of Japanese-language books and this English-language book featuring the findings of a 14-month study on the wars Japan fought for nearly 14 years. The research was undertaken by an in-house team, the Yomiuri Shimbun War Responsibility Reexamination Committee.
The books are based on a yearlong series of articles heralding the committee’s findings that appeared in the Yomiuri newspaper through August 15, 2006, the 61st anniversary of the end of World War II. Considering the Yomiuri Shimbun’s daily circulation of 10 million copies across Japan, I am sure the series was tremendously enlightening to many people.
People with no experience of wartime now account for a majority of the Japanese population. As such, I believe it is the Yomiuri Shimbun’s obligation as the nation’s largest newspaper to tell the Japanese populace, “Who was responsible for starting the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, why they did so and why the nation kept fighting until many of its cities had been almost completely reduced to ashes.”
I, myself, was drafted as one of the Imperial Japanese Army’s last group of privates, the lowest rank in the military. Before being conscripted, I studied liberalism as a university student amidst the suppression by military police and thought police. I am now 80 years old and serve as Editor-in-Chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun. For some time, I had been thinking that we, the Japanese people, should delve into the circumstances surrounding those wars and clarify on our own just who should be held responsible. This is one reason why the Yomiuri Shimbun embarked on the task of looking into war responsibility.
Following the end of World War II, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Tribunal, tried a group of Japanese government and military leaders who had been charged as Class-A war criminals. Subsequently, seven of these leaders were executed by hanging, while 16 others were sentenced to life and two were given lesser prison terms.
The proceedings and verdicts handed down by the military tribunal were not without flaws. Unjustifiably heavy penalties were meted out to some defendants, while not a few people who should have been held accountable for appalling war crimes escaped prosecution.
As a part of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan accepted the verdicts handed down at the Tokyo Tribunal and promised to carry out the sentences. This settled the matter under international law at that time. However, Japan signed the peace treaty in order to regain its independence as quickly as possible; therefore, no efforts were made in the name of Japan or its people to look into where responsibility for the war rested.
The Yushukan (war memorial museum), within the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, declares the vindication of the Class-A war criminals on the basis of its private management’s conviction that the wars were fought for self-preservation, self-defense and for the liberation of Asia from Western colonial rule. The particular problem with the shrine is its enshrinement of Class-A war criminals together with the souls of those many soldiers who sacrificed themselves in battle.
Many Japanese continue to worship at Yasukuni Shrine. If things are left as they are, a skewed perception of history—without knowledge of the horrors of the war—will be handed down to future generations.
Where does responsibility for the wars lie? The answer often has been ambiguous and blurred because of the particular nature of Japan’s past political system, which led to the wars.
In the military, field officers such as colonels often became more influential than even Emperor Showa, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, Army generals and Navy admirals in making decisions to go to and to escalate conflicts; they were responsible for many atrocities. In some cases they initiated major troop deployments without the consent of the Emperor, the Supreme Commander.
A handful of generals and staff officers devised special suicide tactics (called “kamikaze” attacks in other countries) and “gyokusai”operations in which every soldier or sailor involved sought to die in combat with no contemplation of surrender. As a result, staggering numbers of young intelligent people, most of whom had been mobilized straight from university study, were forced to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks.
Some military leaders did not treat their subordinates as humans. They abused their troops and regarded them as nothing but expendable weapons. Such inhuman deeds should have been strictly punished.
It should be noted that the Yomiuri Shimbun’s reexamination of where responsibility for the war sits was launched on its committee’s own initiative, and was not due to pressure from China and/or South Korea. The Yomiuri Shimbun’s efforts were based on its belief that there can be no genuinely honest and friendly dialogue with those countries which suffered considerable damage and casualties in the wars with Japan, without correctly understanding Japan’s past. To that end, we, the Japanese people, should follow our consciences in explaining on our own how barbaric the wars were and who should be held responsible.
This approach is indispensable for Japan to forge friendship and peace with its neighbors in the future. We hope the findings of the Yomiuri Shimbun committee serve as a cue for others to examine and explore what kinds of miscalculation or blind belief could trigger wars elsewhere in the future.
It goes without saying that we would be delighted if our efforts help facilitate a solution to the Yasukuni Shrine issue, which has jeopardized Japan’s diplomatic relations with China and South Korea, and has sharply divided public opinion in Japan.
Editor-in-Chief, The Yomiuri Shimbun