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Ghosts of Wartime Japan Haunt Koizumi's Cabinet

New America Media, Commentary, Christopher Reed Posted: Nov 03, 2005

TOKYO -- Ghosts of World War II haunt the Japanese political scene as neo-nationalist causes and personalities promoted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recall disturbing memories of racism and fascism. Such spectral appearances may be fleeting but unmistakable.
They were evident in Koizumi's recent new cabinet appointments. His chauvinistic, right-wing bias seems to demonstrate an indifference to Asian -- and world -- protests raised over his October prayer visit to the ultra-patriotic Yasukuni war shrine here.

Koizumi's choice of Taro Aso as foreign minister also brusquely dismisses continuing concerns in China and the two Koreas over the refusal of Japan, unlike Germany, to confront honestly its legacy of imperial aggression towards its neighbors. Aso, another worshipper at Yasukuni, where convicted war criminals are honored, openly advocates the mystical racist superiority theory of Japan that propelled its 1931-45 militaristic adventures.

In a formal speech on October 15, opening a national museum in Kyushu, Aso proclaimed Japan as "one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race, the like of which there is no other on this earth." This echoed a 1986 statement by a previous right-wing premier, Yasuhiro Nakasone, that caused uproar, and of which Aso, 65, must have been aware.

Aso's supremacist speech ignored the aboriginal inhabitants of the Japanese islands, the Ainu, who now live cooped up in the northern island of Hokkaido in deprived misery. It also ignored the different origins of Okinawa's people. And, anthropologists have noted, the Japanese themselves come from three different Asian strains.

Aso is one of three contenders expected to succeed Koizumi next year. Another is Shinzo Abe, now made chief cabinet secretary of the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic party. Abe, 51, is a forceful conservative, a Yasukuni devotee and defender of old Japan -- in which his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a convicted wartime criminal and a postwar prime minister.

Abe has defended Japan in the scandal of "comfort women," a cruel euphemism for an estimated 200,000 Asian women, and some Dutch, coerced into what Amnesty International calls "sexual slavery" for Imperial army soldiers during Japan's 14 years of Asian conquests.

Japan has never fully acknowledged its responsibilities in such sex slavery. In 2001 when the national broadcast network NHK made a television documentary about the comfort women, Abe, then deputy cabinet secretary, pressured the producers to tone it down.

Koizumi's cabinet appointments came in the immediate aftermath of a devastating Amnesty report, "Still Waiting After 60 Years: Justice for Survivors of Japan's Military Sexual Slavery System," that condemned Japan's failure to compensate the prostituted women, many of them now in their late 70s or 80s. The Japanese media have ignored the October 28 report.

There are more examples of Japan's obstinacy in refusing to acknowledge its wartime aggression, its evasion of any honest in recalling its cruelties and its failure to educate its young about that history.

A persistent example is Yasukuni and the status of the 14 war criminals who were convicted at the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1948 but only enshrined at the site on October 17, 1978. Koizumi chose the 27th anniversary of that date for his recent, fifth, Yasukuni visit.

There are two issues here, neither of which have been widely reported. One is that the 14 are not just reverently remembered, as in western war memorials, but they are also sanctified and actively worshipped under the Shinto religion as "kami" (divine spirits).

Second is who they actually are. One is wartime premier Hideki Tojo, responsible for authorizing all sorts of brutality and mayhem, including anatomical experiments on POWs.

Two others are the "butchers of Nanking," General Iwane Matsui and his chief of staff Akira Mutou, who allowed their army to massacre at least 370,000 Chinese men, women and children, in six weeks in the then- Chinese capital in 1937-8. Existing documents and photographs record the rampage, which included the bayoneting of babies.

Another name sanctified at Yasukuni is Kenji Doihara, who helped concoct the Mukden (or Manchurian) Incident, in which the 1931 bombing of a Japanese railroad line became Tokyo's excuse to invade Manchuria. The event has been likened to the burning of the Reichstag in Germany. Later Doihara, as Major General of the Japanese air force, gave formal approval for the Pearl Harbor attack.

It is significant that of Koizumi's cabinet, no less than six, including himself, are sons or grandsons of senior politicians active during the wartime period or immediately thereafter.

The Japanese people have been poorly educated in their nation's former militarism, but Koizumi's cabinet and the premier himself have no such excuse.

PNS and NAM contributor Christopher Reed filed this commentary from Tokyo.

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