The Global Alliance: Let’s Face It

by Victor Fic
Tokyo Journal, Tokyo, February 2000
[rev. 2/00]
Did you know that late last year the German government set aside billions in compensation money to victims of forced labor during World War II - while the Japanese government is still dragging its feet in even recognizing any guilt? Tokyo Journal spoke with Dr. Yue- him Tam, the president of Global Alliance, an association of 40+ groups whose goal is to finally bring this issue to a humane conclusion.

Victor Fic is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo. He is at

Dr. Yue-him Tam, president of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia, was in Tokyo late last year for a major conference on the war. He gave this exclusive interview to Victor Fic on December 13 for Tokyo Journal.

tj: What is the Global Alliance?

Tam: Basically, GA is a non-profit and non-partisan federation of organizations around the world dedicated to the theme of remembrance, redress and reconciliation concerning World War II in Asia and the Pacific. It brings many of these groups together electronically, organizationally and personally. We have been increasingly recognized as the leading organization safeguarding humanity and international justice with emphases on WWII and its aftermath. 

tj: How many members do you have?

Tam: We started with 20 groups a few years ago, but now we are almost up to 50.

tj: Is the first organization of its kind?
Tam: Yes, in terms of an umbrella organization. Before we started, there were groups in cities like New York and Chicago that focused on some aspect of the war, like the Nanking Massacre or germ warfare. Some cities even had more than one group. Many of us felt the need to pool all the resources.

tj: Can individuals join?

Tam: We are open to institutional members at the present stage.. Individuals can only join GA as non-voting “supporters” according to our present by-laws. Our reasoning is that a person should contact an institiutional member in his/her area, and they can get him/her involved. In that sense, we are like the World Jewish Congress. But we do not have a formal headquarters per se; maybe one day we will have a big headquarters building (laughs). Now we have our secretariat in San Francisco. Our budget is small and everyone who helps us is a volunteer.

tj: Can you summarize the Alliance's activities?

Tam: Our affiliates have web sites for communication and public education, and we also hold exhibits on the war, for examples on the Nanking Massacre and Unit 731, as well as lobbying to promote legislation in the U.S. and elsewhere that permits victims of Japan to sue for redress. We support and organize workshops and conferences on the war issues. We also publish a Global Alliance Newsletter to report activities and views of scholars and activists within and outside our instituional membership worldwide.

tj: How did you come to join the Alliance?

Tam: I was one of the earliest people to get involved. In the early 1970s, Japan and China had a dispute over the ownership of the Diaoyutai Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkakus. I was a graduate student at Princeton. Chinese students in the U.S. were not studying Japan seriously; I was one of the few who did. Therefore, I was asked to head a research team in New York whose members knew the language and who understood Japan. We were part of the Global Movement to Protect the Sovereignty of the Diaoyutai Islands. I did research and translations for publications and served as liaison with Japan for such projects.

tj: Was that your start as an activist?

Tam: That was the beginning activism for many of us outside the PRC and Taiwan. For the first time, people of Chinese descent living in North America realized that we enjoyed many rights, like freedom of speech, unlike Chinese in Taiwan or China then. We also felt we should be concerned with the fate of China and her relations with other countries. Many of the Chinese intellectuals in North America were the cream of society; most were professionals in science and business executives. We all felt the need for a coordinating organization for solidarity on the issues that concerned us. But we became divided between the pro-Beijing and pro-Taiwan camps on the sensitive issue of reunification. The idea of an alliance on the war issue just could not be realized in the 1970s and 1980s.

tj: Did you seize the initiative and start the Alliance?

Tam: No, I cannot claim that credit. If I had to name a single name, it would be Mr. Andrew H. K. Tu. He is a senior educator in Hong Kong who dedicated his life to safeguard humanity and justice. For example, he started a good-Samaritan organization that convinced people not to commit suicide in the 1960’s, and he was the leader of several educational and civil rights organizations in Hong Kong. Of course, many people played a vital role in creating the Global Alliance, particularly Professor Tien-wei Wu of Southern Illinois University and the community leaders in the Bay Area and New York. Professor Wu started publishing a bilingual quarterly focusing on the studies of Japanese agression against China in 1988, of which Mr. Tu was a supporter and I was a founding editor. In 1990, under the leadership of Mr. Tu and Professor Wu, the first International Conference on Sino-Japanese Relations During the Last Century was convened in Hong Kong, of which I was the secretary general. I think Mr. Tu was one of the first to act decisively and think globally, in the late 1980s. In 1994, GA officially started with a secretariat in San Francisco. Mr. Tu was elected the first president.

tj: How do you like being Tu's successor?

Tam: I was really urged to do it. I also had a high sense of mission to safeguard truth, humanity and justice. But I see myself as a scholar mainly, not a politician. I became the GA president in 1999 and will serve for two years. Now on top of teaching and research, I am a player, coach and cheerleader.

tj: What exactly is your connection to China and Japan?

Tam: I was born in Canton in 1941, but in 1956, we moved to Hong Kong. Eventually I was able to study in America and Japan, and in 1992 I emigrated. I am a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The academic issues that most concern me are modern Japanese intellectual history and Sino-Japanese relations, particularly the rise of pan-Asianism in the 1890s, the Sino-Japanese war itself, and the cultural interchange between Japan and China during the last two centuries. To date, I have published more than ten books on these areas. 

tj: Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, is a graduate of Macalester College. Is he supporting your cause?

Tam: Mr. Annan is a trustee of the school and returns twice a year approximately. I have not asked him to help because he is still new in his U.N. position, and I do not want to create difficulties for him. If I do approach him, it will be in a very official way, as in an official letter. I do not want to embarrass him. He is a very decent man, and I liked him even before his U.N. appointment.

tj: Do the supporters of the Global Alliance derive some emotional catharsis from joining and acting?

Tam: I don't exclude that. But most of us believe that truth must be respected and justice must be served and we must fight for that. Many of us were born after the war or we were small during it, so we are less emotional than people who fought or who were brutalized. We have a sense of right and wrong. And we have a sense of urgency because many of the victims are dying and more and more younger people are deprived the right to know the truth of WWII in Asia and the Pacific.

tj: Some people think that the Japanese government is waiting for the elderly victims to die so they can avoid the issue.

Tam: I have heard and read about theories like that. I do not have enough evidence that Japanese policy is deliberately so. A good number of elected legislators and government leaders are also anxious to help the victims and close the dark chapter honorably. But unfortunately they are in the minority. 

tj: As a scholar, what aspects of the apology and redress issue stand out in your mind?

Tam: Well, the Japan of the 1950s and 1960s was very apologetic. The Japanese had an expression, ichioku sozange, which means 100 million people [the entire nation] feel remorse and are profoundly apologetic. But over time many Japanese became more nationalistic and revisionistic. This started as early as at the end of the Occupation in 1952, and it became more obvious in the 1970s, when Japan was recognized as an economic superpower.

tj: Is this growth in nationalism continuing?

Tam: Yes, definitely. One symbolic index is the number of Diet members who visit the Yasukuni Shrine each year. The Shrine glorifies war criminals. At one time, Japanese leaders did not go there, but starting with Prime Minister Nakasone in the 1980s, they made it a point to go.

tj: Japanese conservatives insist that Arlington National Cemetery near Washington is the same as Yasukuni Shrine.

Tam: This is wrong. Japan caused a great deal of suffering in neighboring countries during the war. The Shrine memorializes an unjust war. In Arlington, you have men and women who fought for very good causes. 

tj: Speaking of fighting for a cause, what was the point of the conference that brought you to Tokyo?

Tam: We co-organized an International Citizens’ Forum on War Crimes and Redress which ran from December 9 to 12 with about 1,200 attendance. We had panelists from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines and Germany who covered all the major issues like Nanking Massacre, sexual slavery, germ warfare, forced labor and the legal fight for justice. At the end, we issued a Tokyo Appeal that states the principle of redress and reconciliation and which calls upon Japan to act in good faith.
We also had a 90-minute protest march downtown to conclude the conference. We want to thank our Japanese host to bring us here in Tokyo. Our host represented many groups of lawyers, scholars and social activists fighting for the common cause of redress and reconciliation for a long time in Japan.

tj: Was it a success?

Tam: I cannot say that I am happy because I wish that more people had come to observe and better media coverage was given to this significant event. However, I also cannot say that I am disappointed because for some sessions the venue was 70%-80% full. In terms of programming, I think this conference could be the model for future ones.

tj: The Alliance has the support of some powerful Jewish groups, correct?

Tam: Yes, there was even a Jewish delegate at the conference. We have a working relationship with the World Jewish Congress, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Canadian-Jewish Congress. And the Hong Kong and Taiwan Teachers' federations also came in addition to the scholars from the PRC and Korea.

tj: Is there any tension between the Alliance and the Jews in terms of getting media attention . . .

Tam: No, nothing of the sort. We are both fighting for the same general cause which is justice for the innocent victims of WWII.

tj: It looks like the right wing eagerly attended the conference?

Tam: Yes. On opening day, about ten vans showed up and they came every day. The rightists were using these huge loudspeakers. I could not understand what they were saying. They did not shock me because I know that the right wing movement is very active in Japan. But people from China, Korea, Germany, the Philippines, Canada and the U.S. — they were surprised.. It is precisely things like the rightists that worry people who watch Japan.

tj: Considering the power of the right wing, can you make a difference in Japan?

Tam: I think so. Recently I and several GA members went to a play entitled “Saikai” (Reunion) performed in Tokyo about the Sino-Japanese war. After it we had a face-to-face discussion with ordinary grass roots people in the audience like factory workers and postal workers. We were encouraged that many Japanese people were eager to know and were apologetic. It was a very moving situation that created a type of psychological force that encourages us not to give up. It was not a rehearsal.

tj: Did you just get up and start talking to the audience?

Tam: No. The playwright and his wife (the heroine) were very moved to have us there. After the play, he asked me to say a few words to the audience in Japanese on the stage. I said I was touched, and found the play a profound investigation of the war. I want to help bring the actors to North America to perform because they will impress people.

tj: Maybe many people in the audience were already converted before they came?

Tam: Yes and no. One woman said that she did not know at first why her sister dragged her to that play. But after seeing it, she was affected by it both mentally and emotionally. I think that some people there learned new things about the war and Japan’s responsibilities for redress. 

tj: What about in North America.

Tam: At first, people are apathetic when they hear about the issue. They have little knowledge because the Sino-Japanese war is not extensively taught in history textbooks. For many Americans, WWII started at Pearl Harbor in 1941. They do not know about the
ten years of Japanese aggression in China before that. But I am not discouraged because we have attracted more and more supporters and ordinary Americans to our conferences and exhibitions. Compared to when we first started, we are gaining momentum. Then there is the success of Iris Chang's book on Nanking. It was a bestseller and she appeared often on television to promote it.

tj: But her book is very controversial.

Tam: Her book is very serious. Iris' critics blame her for the wrong reasons. Her main point is to tell the story of the Nanking Massacre. She has no formal training on Japanese history and never claims to be a professional historian. Her errors with some dates and pictures are not so huge and do not undermine her main purpose. The critics are excessive. Also keep in mind that she made an intellectual contribution by being the first person to use the Rabe diaries in understanding what happened. In this regard, she has made history because no serious book on the topic can afford to ignore this approach.

tj: So overall, you feel the Alliance can meet its goals?

Tam: I must be honest and say yes and no. Our work is paying off in North America and we will continue to get support from people like students, politicians, persons of Japanese descent, Jewish organizations and the main stream media because our evidence is strong and we are active. In Japan, there are the two trends of people who are eager to learn and those emotionally oppose. As for the latter, I do not think that they have gone through the process of really trying to understand what happened and what to do about it. Many Japanese still have simplistic ideas like they lost because of the A-bombs, with little wider understanding of the morality and nature of the war.

tj: Assess the policy of Asian states regarding your cause.

Tam: I am disappointed by the rather passive and mistaken view of some Asian leaders like Lee Teng-hui in Taiwan. He says that Japan has apologized too much. I used to respect him a great deal because he is the first democratically elected leader of Taiwan, but his view on the war is not acceptable. Also, Mohammed Mahatir in Malaysia wants Japan to be a regional leader; he wants to forget the war. How can Japan lead if it is not really trusted? I recall that several years ago, Dr. Mahatir was not like that. The military regime in Burma is trying to work with Japan to get economic aid and political support. They do not seem to be interested in the war issues anymore. But most Asian leaders are firmed and farsighted in their attitudes toward Japan and the war issue. President Jiang Zemin of the PRC and Mr. Lee Kuang-yiu of Singapore are good examples. I should also mention the vision of such influential Japanese intellectuals as Professor Ienaga Saburo and the Nobel Literary Laureate Oe Kenzaburo who are supportive to our cause. 

tj: How about the apology that Japan gave to Korea in 1998?

Tam: I think that the apology was lukewarm at best and meant to appease Korea's President Kim Dae-jung. At worst, it is unacceptable because, if my information is correct, the wording in the Korean and Japanese versions are different. The latter does not truly face the issue. Japan respects power and it can see that Korea is divided and needs Japan's help, so Tokyo feels it can take Korea's position into account and sidestep the truth.

tj: What are your thoughts on China?

Tam: Japan thinks that China is still weak and also internally divided, so Japanese leaders say, "So what?" But China will not forget the issue as easily as Japan would like. President Jiang made it clear to the Japanese leaders face to face during his state visit to Japan in 1998. 

tj: Many young Asians envy Japan and are less upset about the war than their elders.

Tam: True. Japan has helped Asia develop economically and it is very popular when it comes to entertainment and cultural products. Japan can be proud of this great contribution. As a scholar, I know what cultural contributions Japan has made throughout the last century in spite of its aggression in Asia. I also know that many Asian countries are indebted to Japan for economic assistance and cultural influence. But Japan must close the chapter on the war through apology and redress as Germany and Italy have done. Otherwise, Japan can never be truly trusted by its Asian and Pacific neighbors. Besides, the younger Asians can become radicalized when they learn about the war and see what the Japanese right is doing. GA is concerned with education, justice and humanity. GA works for both redress and reconciliation. The past can be a big lens through which Japan is looked at. It is up to Japan to decide if it wants to win new friends or new enemies.