Victims Dying, Truth Buried

By Carol Lum


Nearly two months ago, I attended a small board meeting for a volunteer association that had curiously chosen to name itself after the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The acronym, ALPHA (Association for the Learning and Preserving of the History of WWII in Asia) was obviously chosen to serve more as a handy mnemonic device than as any reference to Greek linguistics.

Having recently graduated from university with an interest in modern Asian history, I was thirsting for some mind-expanding stimulation to supplement the little I was doing to feed my brain at the time; and fortunately for me, I was conveniently introduced to ALPHA by a good friend who also happened to be their Treasurer. Subconsciously though, I was really searching for a worthwhile commitment that would kill at the most an evening or two in my week, and that would be strictly non-political.

          Several weeks later, I ironically found myself in the second to back row of the Shankai Bunka Kaikan Conference Theatre in Tokyo attending a three-day conference hosted by the International Citizens Forum on War Crimes and Redress, and Global Alliance (parent organization of ALPHA) on  “Seeking Reconciliation and Peace for the 21st Century”.  I listened with anticipation, horror and disbelief as victims, academics and activists described the scope and depth of the inhumanity capable by humans.

          There I quickly learned that everything about the war crimes in WWII in Asia urges one to be political; in fact, that I had ever conceived to remain non-political seems thoughtless and incomprehensible. When 35 million people can be violated so brutally -raped, tortured, enslaved - and when the world seems to prefer to forget out of convenience and ignorance, I cannot help feeling panic and despair.

          But certainly, not everyone chooses the bliss of ignorance and amnesia, and it is to these individuals that I now write.

          While you may know about the 1931 Rape of Nanking, China - a particularly brutal attack by the Japanese Imperial Army, you may not be aware that the victimization of civilians and POW’s extended much deeper and further than is commonly known. The victims of Japanese aggression include the female sexual slaves - better known as ‘comfort women’ – abducted from Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines; the American and Canadian POW’s who were forced into slave labor and internment camps; the Hong Kong residents whose entire life savings were lost during the Japanese occupation; the Chinese civilians and POW’s who were used as lab animals in biological and chemical warfare experiments throughout bases in China – notably without anesthesia.  Sadly, the list does goes on. 

          As much as the conference was designed to identify the seriousness of the crimes, it also aimed to examine the ways in which victims can seek redress and remembrance. Therefore, one of the options under serious exploration was litigation against the Japanese government as well as the corporations involved in the exploitation of the victims.

          Hundreds of corporations currently flourishing within Japan may be implicated in such human rights lawsuits. To start, many shipping companies were heavily involved in the importation of American and Canadian POW’s into Japan where they were forced to work for various Japanese industries under terrible conditions at a par with those of Jewish labor internment camps throughout Nazi Europe.  The same applies to the ‘comfort women’ and civilian slave labourers imported from colonized and occupied areas throughout Asia.

During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, residents there were forced to convert their savings into Japanese military money certificates; however, when the Japanese army retreated, such money certificates were not reimbursed by the Japanese government. Instead, many of the Hong Kong survivors, now in their nineties and dying, still possess chests full of Japanese military money certificates for which the post-WWII Japanese government refuses to make compensation. Major banks that now flourish in Japan are deeply entangled in this scandal.

On the issue of the cruel biological and germ experimentation conducted on the Chinese, several pharmaceutical companies and the Japanese medical community may soon have to answer for the war crimes from which they benefited. In addition, the American government who gave immunity to the Japanese doctors and scientists during the war tribunals following WWII in exchange for the results of their experiments may also have many questions to answer.

          Up to this point, prosecution against the Japanese government in the Japanese courts has failed. And it comes as no surprise.

          Currently, the facts of Japanese atrocities such as those outlined above have purposely been excluded from national school textbooks. Even art exhibits alluding to the Rape of Nanking have been prohibited. Outside the Conference halls and nearly 60 years after WWII, Japanese right-wing conservatives physically and verbally attacked audience members of the forum. Unfortunately for the Japanese people, it seems that this right-wing faction continues to maintain control over government policies and the public media. But until their past is acknowledged and recognized for both its heroes and its monsters, the Japanese will continue to stand the risk of another rise in nationalistic militarism.

          But at the end of the day, any compensation for the victims arising from the legal prosecution of those involved would be for symbolic reasons only. Many of the victims are dead. Many of them are dying. For compensation to be meaningful, it would have to be combined with the gesture of truth and peace: that is, the Japanese government would have to apologize with sincerity towards and recognition of the millions of humans that they violated, and then attempted to cover up for the last 60 years, thereby continuing to violate them. For the apology to be meaningful, the victims and I would like to see the Japanese atrocities of WWII included in the curriculum of Japanese youth. We would like to see these war crimes condemned by the government that committed them, and then to see this condemnation published in the Japanese media.

          As a start in the process of reconciliation, I acknowledge my part in the amnesia surrounding the Japanese war crimes. I admit to having propagated this forgetfulness because of my ignorance and my inability to speak. Perhaps you may wonder why you have to this point been unaware of the facts that I have presented to you. Part of the reason is that the victims, including the children of the deceased, have been unable to find a voice.

          The truth is that my great-grandmother told my grandmother who told my mother who told me; and I chose to forget because I thought no one could be bothered to listen and because it made life convenient. I chose to forget my great grandfather who was tortured to death and the Japanese soldiers who tortured him because I did not know either him or them. And so you see, I am also responsible for the forgetting. So please, let me now apologize.

To those victims still unnamed, and especially to the victims who helped to bring this important Conference together and who allowed a young woman in her twenties to attend, I apologize with sincerity and with recognition of the violation that was imposed either upon you or your relatives not so long ago. And I hope above all that the dignity you deserve will be restored to you.

 I can now only wait for the Japanese government and corporations involved to tell every international citizen including their citizens, the truth. And hopefully then, it will become easier for Japan to become a leader and a partner in the redress issue for the victims of the Asia Pacific War and similar issues for victims worldwide who also await their chance to claim their voice.  (End)


(This article was published in Rice Paper, Vol 6, No. 1, 2000.  Rice Paper is published four times a year by Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop.)