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Jewish World Review August 20, 2001 / 1 Elul 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Japan can't win -- AS Japanese prime ministers go, Junichoro Koizumi was off to a pretty auspicious start.

To begin with, he was (and remains) uncommonly popular with the voters of Japan, who seldom muster much enthusiasm for their political leaders. His status as a renegade member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party attracted the attention of the Western press. With his long hair, disheveled clothes and iconoclastic manner, he was certainly in contrast to the buttoned-down, stone-faced -- dare I say inscrutable? -- style of his LDP colleagues. Best of all, he seems to have grasped that the root cause of Japan's decade-long financial slump is the government's habit of micro-managing the economy.

Mr. Koizumi is more than just a character; he promises to be, in the words of another prominent politician, a reformer with results.

But that was then. Last week, in the breathless words of the Washington Post correspondent in Tokyo, Mr. Koizumi "reopened the wounds of the past by paying homage ... at the symbolic heart of right-wing militarism, a shrine that honors the hanged leaders of Japan's war machine." Not only that, added the Post, the government has approved a history text that treats Japan's wartime conduct in terms that suggest "Koizumi harbors right-wing sympathies." You could almost feel the reporter's sense of betrayal and loss: A rebel-prime minister with long hair and -- right-wing sympathies.

In fact, this is what Mr. Koizumi did. As he said he would several months ago, he paid a low-key, official visit to a Shinto shrine near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo which honors Japan's 2.5 million dead from the Second World War. As it happens, I, too, have visited the Yasukuni Shrine, and it is a little misleading to suggest that it honors the "hanged leaders of Japan's war machine." Instead, it honors the memory of those who died in the service of their country during the war, a handful of whom were convicted of war crimes and put to death, but the vast majority of whom were common soldiers, sailors and airmen, doing their duty. There is a difference.

In the United States, of course, such a gesture by a political leader would not just be commonplace, but mandatory. On two federal holidays each year we honor the memory of those who served (and died) in America's wars -- not all of which were righteous crusades. No less than Gen. Ulysses S. Grant devoted several pages in his memoirs to condemning the Mexican War (in which he served heroically and honorably) as "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." It is fair to wonder what the residents of Hamburg and Nagasaki must think when we grow sentimental about the pilots of World War II. Gen. Curis LeMay, architect of the devastating U.S. bombing offensive against Japanese and German cities, once remarked that, if the United States had lost the war, he would have been hanged as a war criminal.

Of course, this is not to say that General LeMay was the moral equivalent of Gen. Hideki Tojo, who masterminded Japan's aggression against East Asia. Nor is it meant to excuse the conduct of Japanese forces in the Pacific, some of whom were shockingly cruel towards civilians and prisoners of war. But it is to suggest that there is such a thing as victor's justice, and that one nation's noble endeavor may be another's crime against humanity.

Naturally, as an American, I think the right side won in World War II -- and as the son of a veteran of the war in the Pacific, I am thankful that Imperial Japan was defeated. But who are we to tell the Japanese and Germans and Italians -- and the British, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Chinese, Filipinos, Confederates, etc. -- that they cannot mourn the loss of those who were sent into war against the United States, and got killed? Death is the same for survivors on either side. Magnanimity, not vengeance, should be the watchword for victorious democracies.

Japan's Asian neighbors are particularly sensitive about World War II, and with good reason. The Imperial Japanese conquest and occupation of Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and elsewhere was especially brutal. But there is little or no resemblance between the dictatorial, militaristic empire of the 1930s and the industrious, democratic Japan with which we have been allied for 50 years. It would be helpful if, when Japan's prime minister honors the dead from his nation's past, we bore that in mind.

On the morning after Mr. Koizumi donned his mourning coat and bowed at the Yasukuni Shrine, two think-tankers in The New York Times worried that the visit might portend a resurgence of right-wing Japanese militarism. Then, in the next paragraph, they complained that Japan's defense ministry contributes little or nothing to peacekeeping missions around the world. Japan was defeated in World War II, constitutionally disarmed, and it still can't win!

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal