Powell Street Festival (Japanese Festival in Vancouver) Panel Presentation, August 2, 1997 Reflecting on the History of World War II in Asia: Intergenerational Implications 

Overcoming Past Experience for Japanese and Japanese Canadians

by Tatsuo Kage of National Association of Japanese Canadians Human Rights Committee

Since the beginning of June this year we Japanese Canadians joined with other ethnic groups in a campaign to support the history textbook screening lawsuit in Japan. In many ways this was a new experience for us in dealing with our past and heritage. During this process both Canadian-born and immigrant Japanese Canadians had to reflect on our history and how it should be passed on to the next generation.

I. First I would like to touch on our experience of Redress.

Through our involvement in the Redress campaign we experienced the process of overcoming our past. To begin with, we had to overcome resistance and hesitation to talk about what some people perceived as a shameful past. They were trying to forget unpleasant memories of internment, even though it was caused not by their own fault or misdeed but by the unjust, racist policy of the government.

During the process of the movement, community leaders insisted that the Redress issue was a matter of democratic principles and human rights for all Canadians. It touched on the conscience of many Canadians, which led to the Redress Settlement in 1988, 9 years ago. As a result we assumed the responsibility for being vigilant toward social injustices and violation of human rights and for being the first group of people to speak up to support the victims..

Keeping these experiences in mind we decided to support the Japanese history textbook screening lawsuit which was initiated by Professor Saburo Ienaga over 30 years ago and the final verdict is expected very soon. For some Japanese Canadians, however, it seems to be difficult to relate themselves to the issue of the tampering with the history of Japanese aggression and atrocities in Asia before and during World War II. They tend to think that it may be an issue for the Chinese or Korean people but not for them. For most Japanese Canadians, the war experience was primarily uprooting and internment, loss of dignity, property and opportunity.

Japanese Canadians, young and old, are proud of the achievement of their forefathers: the struggle to establish themselves in a hostile environment, to endure the difficult time of uprooting and internment, and to successfully resolve the redress issue.

Thinking about this, perhaps what we need to convey to the younger generation is our community's responsibility to stand on the side of victims of unjust treatment, both here and abroad.

II. The next question is about the responsibility of the Japanese government and ordinary citizens. I believe there are different levels of responsibility:

The ordinary Japanese citizens, including the postwar generation, should assume certain responsibility for the atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Asian and Pacific countries.

1) Japanese people should demand that their government acknowledge the wrong doing of the government and military in the earlier part of this century and compensate the damages. The Japanese government might say that once the gate is open, demands will be endless and they can not afford it. I would like to add that this is exactly the reasoning which our current government would give. Many of you may be aware that Raymond Chan, MP recently argued that Redress for Japanese Canadians had been a mistake made by the Molroney government. I feel that it is an insult for many Canadians who supported Redress for Japanese Canadians.

2) As we saw a few minutes ago in the presented video, ex-soldiers are now in their 70's and 80's, and some of them have regained their humanity by publicly admitting their participation in atrocities and war crimes. But I believe that the responsibility does not end at the level of these people, and extends to even those who were not born at the time of the war.

3) The Japanese people as a whole have a moral responsibility for a) learning and acknowledging historical facts about what the Japanese authorities and military did to other nations, and b) for ensuring that younger generations are informed about it through the public education system. Without common understanding of the past how could younger people in Japan and other Asian countries establish friendly relations?

In a sense, Japanese Canadians carry a similar responsibility regardless of their age, birth place or citizenship. We are proud of our cultural heritage. But just like personal inheritance, we cannot always inherit only what we like. We also have to take debts and burdens as a natural part of the human condition.

What can we do? First of all, we have to learn what happened during the Japanese invasion and talk about it, not only among ourselves, but also discuss with the people of Asian Pacific background and try to understand their experience and point of view. If we continue to withhold our empathy and understanding toward these people by assuming that it is their business but not ours, then their bitterness and mistrust toward Japanese and Japanese Canadians will persist for a long time.

I find the introductory comments made by Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu for the book of "The Rape of Nanking" very appropriate to quote:

He states: "...however graphic of the horrors of that dreadful time, as I believe it to be an instrument of reconciliation. It is a step on the road to a better world."