This is Part III of a Guest Post by Andrzej Kozlowski.
Any comparisons between Japanese actions in Korea and the Holocaust are so absurd that there is no need to discuss them here. China indeed was a victim of Japanese aggression, though Japan neither intended nor planned to subjugate (not to mention exterminate) the vast and diverse population of China. This is, of course, not to say that some or even most Japanese military and politicians did not harbour expansionist ambitions. The problem is that the practice of ”loyal insubordination” (“gekokujo”) by way of each often quite junior military officers could establish “faits accompli” against the will of their military and civilian seniors including the Emperor, makes it difficult even to talk about “Japan’s intentions”. It is nowadays accepted by almost all historians that neither the occupation of Manchuria nor the advance in China were ever planned or intended by senior Japanese political leaders. The same is true of the advance into China after the Marco Polo Bridge incident. In fact, many Japanese actions, including atrocities such as Sook Ching, were planned and carried out by fanatical but relatively row ranking officers (often from the military police – the Kempeitai), sometimes in defiance of their superiors. In some cases it these superiors who paid the price while the culprits escaped unpunished. Such were the cases of generals Masahru Homma and Tomoyuki Yamashita, both decent and honorable professional soldiers who neither ordered nor approved of the crimes for which they were executed. In both cases, the chief culprit behind the atrocities and a personal enemy of both generals was the fanatical Kempeitai officer Masanobu Tsuji, who was not only never brought to justice but after 1952 was elected to Japan’s Upper House and later attempted to advise Vietnamese communists.
The treatment of Homma and Yamashita, who were tried sentenced on the basis of the principle that the man nominally in charge is always responsible, even for matters over which he can have no control, is actually more compatible with traditional Japanese ethos than with international laws at the time the general were tried. However, it is in striking contrast to the attitude towards German military such as field marshal Albert Kesselring, Generaloberst, Eberhard von Mackensen, and others who had personally ordered executions of innocent civilians as reprisals for partisan operations against the German troops. While both the German and the Japanese generals received death sentences, in the case of the Germans a massive storm of protest lead to the commutation of the sentences followed by a quick release of the accused. In the case of the Japanese generals all appeals, including to the U.S. supreme court and to president Truman were rejected. Comparing these and many other similar cases, it is hard not to feel that a grave injustice was done. Later it became common to attribute this to “racism”, but at least as big a role was played by the American’s and Westerner’s in general inability to view wartime Japan in any other way than by analogy with with Nazi Germany. In the case of Germany, however, the bulk of the guilt for the incomparably greater crimes was placed on Hitler, his closest associates and the Nazi party structures. That allowed the Wehrmacht to cover up its own willing participation, and present themselves as honorable patriots and soldiers who only carried out their duties. The allied leaders knew well that this version of what had occurred was not just an oversimplification but a deliberate lie, but went along with it because of the need to rebuilt Germany and it’s military. In the case of Japan, however, the situation was more complicated. The Japanese had no Hitler and no equivalent of a Nazi party, or even an ideology comparable to the national socialism. While the war lasted, the figure of the Emperor played in the mind of many Americans a role comparable to Hitler. In June 1945, before Japan’s surrender, the US government commissioned a Gallup poll (the results of which were kept secret) which asked: “what should be done with the Emperor after the war”. The results were as follows:
(1). Kill him. Torture him and let him starve (36%)
(2). Punish him or exile him. (24%)
(3). Bring him to court, and if found guilty punish him. (10%)
(4). Judge him as a war criminal. (7%)
(5). Use him as a puppet. (3%)
(6). Do nothing. (4%)
(7). Other, don’t know. (16%).
Thus almost 70% of Americans wanted the Emperor to be punished, including by means that today associated with countries such as Iran, rather than the United States of America. However, since the United States had committed itself to “respecting the will of the Japanese people” as it became clear about a year after Japan’s surrender both from U.S. intelligence reports and from a huge number of private letters sent to general MacArthur by private Japanese citizens, that thee was an overwhelming (over 90%) support for the Emperor among the Japanese public ( in fact, not so much for the “Emperor system” as for Emperor Hirohito personally), the decision was taken to absolve the Emperor and the Imperial family from blame. However, the blame therefore had to be put somewhere. The Tokyo trials created one category of blame carriers: the so called “class A war criminals”, who supposedly plotted to bring about war. To try these men, some of whom, such as the former foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu had made great efforts at considerable personal risk to prevent war, a new category of war crime: “crime against peace”, of extremely general nature, was invented. This was not only an case of “ex post factum” justice but the charge was so vague that it be applied to anyone holding any position of responsibility including active opponents of Japanese militarism such as Shigemitsu. The executions of Homma and Yamashita were merely extension of the same principle to the military: punishment had to be seen to have been carried out even if justice was the victim. The consequences of this approach are with us to this day. On the one hand, there is the belief among many Japanese, that the post war retribution was based on random vengeance rather than justice. It made it easier for Japanese nationalists to claim that all or most accusations against the Japanese conduct of the war had been fabricated for the purpose of exacting revenge. On the other hand, Westerners who tend to accept that all the findings of “international courts” and resolutions of “international organizations” such as the U.N. as representing justice as well as “scholarly consensus”, tend to view any Japanese reluctance to accept any of these judgements and resolutions as the absolute truth as proof of nationalism, revisionism and maybe even of still surviving dreams of expansion and conquest.