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Japanese Prime Minister Minister Shinzo Abe has been taking a lot of heat lately for visiting a shrine where war criminals from World War II are among those remembered.

China accused Abe of threatening “regional peace.” South Korea said he was glorifying Japan’s past history of aggression. All this outrage was predictable, so much so that Vice President Joe Biden spent an hour on the phone trying to persuade Abe not to go.

But Abe went anyway, like other Japanese politicians before him. Here’s Abe’s reason: Normal leaders of normal countries honor their war dead. And seven decades after World War II, Japan yearns to be “normal” again.


How long should it take a country to be forgiven for horrific crimes? White Southerners in the wake of slavery, and Germans after the Holocaust might ask the same question. Good people in those places wrestle with how to be proud of their past, without glorifying the evil in it. They grow weary of being the bad guy.

“When every day in the media this past is presented to me, I notice that something inside me is opposing this permanent show of our shame,” German novelist Martin Walser said during a debate about a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. “I start looking away.”

We shouldn’t look away from Japan’s war crimes. They happened. Between 1937 and 1945, the Japanese military killed millions of civilians. In the name of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Japanese soldiers murdered, raped, and looted China’s then capital, Nanking. Japanese military units conducted experiments on living prisoners of war in China, freezing and sawing off limbs to research frostbite. Women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers.

These were not forgettable crimes, and it is wrong for anyone to deny them.

But many Japanese leaders have expressed “deep remorse” over the war. Abe, whose own grandfather was investigated for war crimes, said his visit to the shrine was not to pay homage to war criminals but to “report before the souls of the war dead” his pledge “that Japan must never wage a war again.”


Up until now, Japan has renounced the very idea of reconstituting its army, calling it a “self-defense” force.

And Japan has paid for its crimes, quite literally. It has given massive amounts of development aid to China. In 1993, Japan set up a special fund for the former “comfort women” of South Korea. Japan’s prime minister personally signed notes of apology to each woman. But the Korean government rejected them. No apology will ever be enough.

In the wake of a total war in which so many fought and died, it’s understandable that a new generation of Japanese are asking themselves: Were we really so much worse than everybody else?

It isn’t lost on them that the Allied Powers also engaged in acts that could be considered war crimes, just as Northerners got rich off the slave trade and Europeans outside Germany persecuted Jews.

Had America lost World War II, Charles Donald Albury, who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, and Curtis LeMay, architect of a devastating bomb campaign in Asia, might have been convicted of war crimes instead.

All too often, in the heat of struggle, we ask our soldiers to do unspeakable things. We deny, downplay, and justify those acts, until the evidence becomes impossible to refute. Then we call those soldiers “rogues” and erase them from our national memory.


But how do you erase an entire generation of military and political leaders? Among the “Class A War criminals” who were quietly added to the Yasukuni shrine after their executions were Prime Minister Koki Hirota, army chief of staff Seishiro Itagaki, and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who ordered the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Like it or not, they were the government of Japan. Can we really pretend that they never existed?

China is no stranger to such conundrums. After all, Chairman Mao killed far more Chinese than the Japanese army did. Yet, mourners still line up in Beijing outside his tomb to pay respects to his embalmed body.

If we are paying attention, we’ll notice that China’s outrage is as much about the present as it is about the past. China wants some islands that Japan owns. Japan isn’t backing down. So China finds it useful to remind the world of Japan’s pledge to remain peaceful, and its history of aggression.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.