Atrocities victims stir debate in Japan: Sixty‑two years after the rape of Nanjing, Chinese survivors are demanding redress for war crimes committed by Japan's armed forces.

By  John Price*


`Get your people inside,'' yelled the plainclothes Japanese cop, ``or we can't guarantee their safety.'' The police were antsy as they herded people away from the Tokyo street corner where two    members of Japan's far right, ultra‑nationalist movement stood in    the early morning Tokyo sunshine, bellowing into bullhorns and brandishing banners: ``The Great East Asia War was not an aggressive war,'' was the message in Japanese on one. On another, in English, ``The USA should repent before God for Nagasaki and Hiroshima.''


The demonstrators had come to protest outside the International Citizen's Forum on War Crimes and Redress held in Tokyo from Dec. 10‑12. Inside, hundreds of delegates from Japan and around the world heard testimony regarding Japan's war crimes during its aggressive war in Asia that began with the 1931 invasion of Manchuria.


Testifying at the forum were witnesses such as Gui‑ying Li. The diminutive figure rocked from side to side as she walked slowly across the immense, brightly lit stage to stand alone at the podium.  Her elderly face, like tanned leather etched with the creases of time, was gentle. Her story was not.


In 1937, Li was 16 and living in a village near Nanjing (also spelled Nanking) with her family when invading Japanese troops arrived. Fearing the worst they fled to a neighbouring village but eventually a group of soldiers arrived. ``At first we weren't afraid,'' she said. ``We didn't know what they wanted.''


``The soldiers carried swords and rifles. After one started shooting we all ran for the mountains, including my girlfriend who was raped,'' Li said. She eventually returned to the village, living in the burned‑out shells of houses. Again, soldiers arrived and this time they took Li.


The villagers, however, begged the soldiers to let her go claiming that the 16‑year‑old Li, who was small for her age, was only 10. The soldiers released her and instead they took and raped Li's friends.


The nightmare Li described was part an orgy of bloodletting and rape recently documented by Iris Chang in her bestseller, The Rape of Nanking. As many as 300,000 people died during Japan's offensive against Nanjing that began 62 years ago this month. Many of the victims were civilians ‑‑ used for bayonet practice, and then buried or burned alive. The atrocities did not stop there.


Women who were forced to become sexual slaves for the Japanese army have also come forward in the hundreds to demand redress. And, on the eve of the conference, Japanese lawyers representing 72 plaintiffs from China filed suit in the Tokyo district court claiming damages for Japan's use of biological warfare during the war.


Representing the plaintiffs in Tokyo were Kewei Zheng and Lizhong Zhang. According to Zhang, 67, his two younger brothers and grandfather died after the Japanese air force dropped grain containing germ‑infected fleas in Changde city in 1941. The existence of Japan's infamous Unit 731 that produced such weapons of    mass destruction has been recently documented in studies such as Sheldon Harris's Factories of Death.


After the war, information related to Unit 731 was buried, Harris told one workshop, because the United States, with the complicity of Canada, offered immunity to Japan's doctors of death in exchange for the information compiled by the unit. Both Canada and the U.S. used the information for the development of their own biological warfare arsenals in the 1950s.


Despite recent revelations, the Japanese government has generally opposed the demands for redress, arguing that all reparations related to the war were settled through peace treaties. Proponents of redress perceive the government's argument as simply a legalistic excuse for Japan to avoid its responsibilities, says Thekla Lit, an activist in Vancouver's Chinese community and Canadian vice‑president of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia. Victims and advocates such as Lit are concerned that Japan has failed to come to terms with its past aggression.


These concerns are real, says Hitoshi Motoshima, a short, grizzled, elderly gentleman who I joined for lunch during the Tokyo conference. A liberal democratic mayor of Nagasaki for 15 years, Motoshima once suggested that Japan's now‑deceased emperor, Hirohito, was partially responsible for the war and its atrocities.

The reaction was dramatic. For two years, Motoshima was harassed by right‑wing extremists and ostracized by his liberal‑democratic cohorts.


On Jan. 18, 1990, a year after Hirohito died, a right‑wing fanatic shot Motoshima in the back. The bullets pierced his lungs and he nearly bled to death in a car waiting for help.


Motoshima remains steadfast in his views, however, and told conference participants that too many Japanese, including the survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, see themselves as victims without understanding Japan's own responsibility for the war. While most people in Japan disassociate themselves from the fanaticism of the ultra‑nationalists who shot Motoshima and who demonstrated at this conference, there is a strong conservative lobby in Japan that opposes any form of redress.


Thus, while victims of German war crimes are able to press home their claims, justice remains elusive for Japan's victims.  Paradoxically, this has brought new players into the fray ‑‑ including Mike Honda, a member of the California state legislature who attended the conference.


``As an American of Japanese descent living in California, I was interned by the U.S. during the war,'' Honda says. ``And I was active in the movement for redress and compensation for Japanese Americans.'' The arguments the Japanese government was using to stall on redress issues sounded, Honda said, like the arguments that were used to block redress for him.


So he decided to take action. Honda successfully introduced a resolution through the California legislature this August demanding that the Japanese government issue ``a clear and unambiguous apology'' for its war crimes and pay reparations to its victims. The resolution also warned, however, against the issue being used in an agenda that ``fosters anti‑Asian sentiment and racism'' or ``Japan bashing.''


In a keynote speech to the conference, Marc Weintraub, a Vancouver lawyer representing the Canadian Jewish Congress, spoke of the Jewish experience in seeking redress for the European holocaust: ``The Jewish commitment to memory,'' said Weintraub, ``was what allowed us to survive.''


In educating people regarding war crimes, Weintraub warned, it is not enough to just catalog the acts of infamy that can numb those not directly involved. Redress is necessary, he said, in order to extract goodness from evil so that such tragedies never happen again.


( * John Price teaches Japanese history at the University of Victoria and was a founding member of the Canada Asia Pacific Resource Network.   This article was published in P. 21 Editorial Section of Vancouver Sun on December 17, 1999)