The rarity of honoring those you've killed

China accuses Japan of downplaying long-ago crimes. In truth, most countries put a more positive spin on dark pasts

April 6, 2014 8:00AM ET

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Germany is the latest episode in Beijing’s ongoing effort to wield the history weapon against Japan. Criticizing Japan as impenitent for its World War II atrocities, the Chinese government frequently contrasts it with Germany, which has atoned extensively for its past violence.

In advance of Xi’s visit, China’s ambassador in Berlin, Shi Mingde, chided Tokyo, saying, “This is the difference between Germans and Japanese, how they face up to history. The whole world knows that.” During Xi’s trip, China’s People’s Daily ran an op-ed that argued, “The government of China has been trying to impress the world with the sharp contrast between post–World War II Japan and Germany in facing their parallel burdens of history.”

Toward this end, the Chinese government asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to accompany Xi to a Holocaust or war memorial in Berlin. Merkel declined. According to Germany’s ambassador to China, “We do not want to see our approach to history exploited to stir up tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.”

It is ironic that China, a country that commits human rights abuses today, focuses so much attention on Japan’s misdeeds 80 years ago. Japan must better address its past violence, but it should also use the opportunity to shine a light on the current state of human rights in East Asia. 

Sour foes

In recent years, Sino-Japanese relations have turned increasingly adversarial. China and Japan both claim islets in the East China Sea, and Chinese vessels and aircraft have become more active in the disputed waters and airspace. Within this context of increased security competition, Beijing recently proclaimed two new national holidays: a victory over Japan day and a day of remembrance for the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese troops killed and raped thousands.

Japan committed terrible violence during its 20th century occupation and invasions. During the Sino-Japanese war, Japanese forces engaged in a brutal counterinsurgency known as the three alls policy — kill all, loot all, destroy all. Its Imperial Army Unit 731 conducted macabre experiments on Chinese POWs and civilians. Across the region, its army brutalized upward of 200,000 women through sexual enslavement.

Tokyo has acknowledged its misdeeds to a far greater extent than critics generally concede: Its governments have paid compensation to victims and reiterated previous landmark apologies to South Korea and other former victims.

But China and other critics correctly note that Japan often dodges (or, far worse, denies) its past. Recent remarks by executives at NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting company, reflect, at best, shocking insensitivity and, at worst, unacceptable denials of the country’s history. Japan’s national memorials pay scant attention, if any, to wartime atrocities: The Yushukan museum at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, for one, blames other countries for starting the war, lauds the valor of kamikaze pilots and ignores the suffering Japan inflicted on its neighbors. Hence the global consternation when Japanese leaders visit the shrine, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did in December. 

Most countries remember their history not as Germany does — which recalls and honors the people it killed — but by exalting their own people’s hardship and bravery.

However, in its reluctance to confront its past, Japan is far from the nationalistic, irresponsible outlier that Beijing portrays it as. In fact, many countries — China very much included — are unwilling to delve into their dark histories. 

Our brava gente

Most countries remember their history not as Germany does — which recalls and honors the people it killed — but by exalting their own people’s hardship and bravery.

Rather than face their deep involvement in the Holocaust, Austrians remember their country as Hitler’s first victim. The French distance themselves from the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis, and instead see themselves as a nation of resisters. Italy remembers its brava gente, who resisted fascism and tried to save Jews from deportation. While these countries have been increasingly willing to confront the darker aspects of their wartime histories, strong constituencies in them still push for a more positive narrative about the past.

Germany has been unique in its sustained willingness to confront mass killing. Japan emphasizes its own suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of the atrocities it committed in Nanjing; the U.S. built on its National Mall a museum to the genocide of European Jews rather than one to the genocide of tens of thousands of Native Americans. China has not confronted the deaths of the 36 million Chinese who perished from Mao Zedong’s policies of agricultural collectivization and the displacement and famine they caused.

By pointing a finger at Japan’s crimes, the Chinese government gains legitimacy and diverts attention from its domestic problems. It also undermines global and regional support for Japan. Highlighting Japan’s dark past creates friction in its relations with the U.S. and, in particular, South Korea, which suffered greatly under 35 years of Japanese occupation.

How can the Japanese government defuse these issues in a way that will satisfy its critics without triggering a backlash from conservatives at home who resent China’s endless demands to atone? 

Change the conversation

First, Japan’s political and civic leaders must continue to admit candidly the crimes their country committed a half-century ago. Leaders need to more strongly repudiate voices at home that deny this history and demonstrate greater empathy toward victims.

But after they do this, Japanese leaders should then shift the conversation. Japan committed terrible violence eight decades ago, but today, it is a peaceful, law-abiding country with some of the freest, healthiest and most prosperous people on earth.

China, on the other hand, is guilty of human rights abuses both in the past and today. These include the violent repression of ethnic minorities; the arrest, detention and torture of political dissidents; and the restriction of individuals’ freedoms, including speech, assembly and religious worship.

Many reasonable Japanese conservatives would accept this approach. It emphasizes Japan’s praiseworthy behavior since World War II, which could form the basis of a positive patriotism. It also would shine much-needed light on human rights violations today.

Japan’s allies and partners can help too. The U.S., which has a powerful foreign policy interest in encouraging good relations among its partners in the region (Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Australia, among others), could help shift the conversation from long-ago crimes to contemporary human rights abuses and the countries that commit them now. 

Jennifer Lind is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. She is the author of "Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics." Follow her on Twitter: @profLind.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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China, Germany, Japan
Human Rights

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