What is our responsibility? - A Japanese Canadian Perspective
By Tatsuo Kage
Presentation at: In Light of the Truth Open Forum2000
Fletcher Challenge Theatre, SFU Harbour Center, Downtown
January 15, 2000 ( Sat) 2:00 ― 4:30 p.m.
Thank you very much for the invitation to this open forum.
1. My Background
I was born and brought up in Japan and I have been living in Canada for 25
years. In Canada I have been involved with the Japanese Canadian
community, particularly in the area of immigrant settlement, the redress
movement and human rights.
I came from Tokyo and entered elementary school a few months after the
beginning of the Pacific War. I remember that both adults and children were
totally indoctrinated by imperialist, militarist values. We believed in the
victorious "holy war" for bringing about a paradise called the "Greater East
Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" where Asian races would live in peace and
A popular song then said:
"Though the enemy be as strong as ten or hundred thousand men, they are like
a disorderly crowd. Even if this is not the case, we are those who carry out a
righteous cause and evil can never win over justice."..
Japan at that time was filled with this kind of self-righteous and irrational
ideal but it was defeated in 1945. Japanese people, exhausted and starved, saw
the American occupation army come with an abundance of goods and supplies.
Only after the defeat of Japan did we come to know that it had really been a
war of aggression for domination and exploitation of people and resources of
the Asian Pacific regions.
At that time, as a ten year old child, I experienced a profound shock from the
complete reversal of values. I felt like the world had been turned upside down.
What I had been taught and I had believed was false and the opposite became
right and true. This experience was the main reason why I became interested
in history, and I grew up viewing all ideologies and state-sanctioned doctrines
with mistrust. I studied modern history in Japan and in Europe and I
eventually became a teacher of history and political science in Japan.
Under the American occupation Japan adopted a new constitution based on
democracy, egalitarian values and international peace. These principles have
been supported by many Japanese people up to the present day because they
learned lessons from the defeat; that militarism in modern Japan brought the
disaster of 1945, and that democracy and pacifism should be better principles
to follow. There is, however, ongoing tension and conflict with the old values,
especially at the political level. The school textbook screening issue is one of
these ongoing struggles.
Even though some progressive people such as Professor Saburo Ienaga won a
partial victory, and the atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Asia
have been included in school text books in Japan, the textbook screening
system itself still exists and the government has been trying to make Japan's
past as bright as possible by toning down the negative aspects of history. As
long as these trends have strength among Japanese it is difficult for them to
accept the moral responsibility for the war and to offer redress to the war
victims. This has to be the first step for healing and international
2. Why do Japanese Canadians support redress for war victims in Asia?
Japanese Canadians, young and old, are proud of their cultural heritage and
the achievements of their forefathers: the struggle to establish themselves in a
hostile and discriminatory environment, to endure the difficulties of uprooting
and internment, and to successfully resolve the redress issue 11 years ago.
When the redress movement started, community leaders insisted that the issue
was a matter of democratic principle and human rights for all Canadians. It
touched on the conscience of many Canadians from all walks of life, including
first nations and many ethnic minorities who gave support to the redress
movement for Japanese Canadians.
Once being a target of discrimination and then achieving redress, Japanese
Canadians have assumed a special responsibility for being vigilant toward
social and political injustices and violation of human rights. From this point
of view we supported Professor Ienaga's textbook lawsuit and the struggles of
war victims for apology and compensation from the Japanese government.
However, there are various opinions within the Japanese Canadian community
on these issues: Some people become defensive whenever others criticize what Japan did in the past. Some community leaders do not want to offend the Japanese government for the sake of economic ties and trade relations with Japan. They are
afraid of backlash and do not want to "rock the boat."
For some others, particularly those who were born and brought up in
Canada, the issue of Japan's war responsibility towards the people in
former conquered countries is remote. For them the second world war in
Asia was fought on a remote land among foreign countries.
3. Let us develop a common strategy
As the International Citizen's Forum in Tokyo demonstrated, we have many
friends and dedicated supporters both within Japan and abroad for the cause of
obtaining justice for war victims and survivors.
In order to achieve a breakthrough on the issue of apology and redress, public
opinion in Japan has to be changed so that a substantial portion of the
Japanese people urge the government to revise its current stance of not
assuming the responsibility for war crimes and damages done to the people of
the Asian and Pacific regions.
In order to achieve apology and redress we could do certain things such as:
to assist our friends in Japan and
to lobby our own government and
to influence international public opinion.
When we are working towards achieving an apology and redress, a series of
questions and arguments may be raised which we should be prepared for. I
will briefly touch on a few examples:
a) Is our support to war victims an anti-Japanese movement?
This is one of the arguments made by revisionists or supporters of the
government position. The movement should aim at healing the victims and
survivors and should not become bashing of the perpetrators. In other words,
we should be able to argue persuasively that we are not intending to embarrass
the government or to damage Japanese businesses.
We should be aware that many Japanese were also victims of the Japanese
militarism, i.e., they were killed or suffered because of the war. For example,
2.3 million Japanese soldiers and civilians in military service died during the
second world war. Less than a half of them were killed in combat. The rest
died in vain because of lack of supplies, malnutrition and diseases. The
irrational indoctrination of not being caught alive by the enemy also
contributed to meaningless casualties.
b) Why did the Japanese military commit these extreme atrocities?
This is a difficult and unanswered question. Explanations such the
indoctrination of the Japanese soldiers with imperialist ideas, or the disregard
of human rights in the pre-war undemocratic society of Japan, are not
satisfactory. Mr. Shiro Azuma, an ex-soldier who participated in the Nanking
massacre, once mentioned that they had been good fathers, husbands or
brothers a month before these events.
Since atrocities and war crimes have been happening in many places, we need
to look into the question: How misdeeds and tragedies such as the genocide of
aboriginal peoples in the Americas, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nanking
Massacre, and the more recent atrocious events in Cambodia, Rwanda and
Bosnia have happened. There must have been some common social background.
We need to find out how the system of the government, organizations and
society contributed to the occurrence of such atrocities and genocide.
However painful it may be, we need to have moral courage to look into the
historical facts and to face the truth. Exploring historical and social factors may
lead to understanding ways to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities.
Efforts in this direction may be much more meaningful for healing past wounds
than a superficial or half-hearted apology. In other words, a sincere apology
should be offered, backed up with assurance and determination by all the
people of Japan that such mistakes would never be repeated.
c) Do we need more facts and studies?
We need to appreciate the strong trend for overcoming the past and for world
peace among Japanese people. Some of them want to do more fact finding and
research in order to counteract the "Holocaust denial" of the revisionists.
There is a movement in Japan for legislation to set up an investigative office at
the National Diet Library for the promotion of research and documentation.
For example, further investigation may reveal more exact numbers of victims
from the Nanking Massacre, both soldiers and civilians. There may be
unpublished documentary evidence in Japan and the US in regard to the
extent and actual operation of the biological warfare units. We may need more
evidence regarding the direct involvement of the government and military in
the operation of the comfort women stations.
This documentation would certainly help refute the arguments presented by
revisionist scholars and advocates who try to deny or minimize the Asian
Holocaust. However, we should remind ourselves that even a lesser number of
victims of the Nanking Massacre should not relieve the perpetrators from
responsibility for the crimes committed. In short, we already have enough
evidence that the Japanese government is responsible for a number of war
crimes. If this point is missed, we will be trapped in the revisionist argument of
lesser number means lesser responsibility , or denial of any injustice at all.
d) What would be our common position as minority groups of Asian and Pacific
I would like to propose that we explore our common position as Canadians of
Asian and Pacific backgrounds. We Canadians of Japanese, Chinese, Korean
and Filipino background, have been living together as neighbours, colleagues
and friends in the framework of a multicultural society.
Our experience living in a multicultural society has helped us to transcend
biases and stereotypes carried over from our home countries, and to develop a
common understanding of history and society. Further, we are able to become
aware of our responsibilities, i.e., respect for individual human rights, the
promotion of justice for all citizens, and racial harmony. Let us make these
responsibilities our guiding principles when dealing with issues here in Canada
Reference: Tatsuo Kage. "Dealing with the Past - The School Textbook Issue in
Japan." JCCA Bulletin. April 1997.