Commentary: A professor explores with his students how and when governments take responsibility for their crimes

By William Underwood, Pacific News Service


FUKUOKA, Japan- Aug 17, 2005-“August 6, 1945: Hiroshima. August 9, 1945: Nagasaki.”

I wrote the words on the classroom whiteboard in large letters. Then I crossed out both dates and places with a big red X.

“Not true,” I declared. “The atomic bombings never happened. A total fabrication.”

My university students were dumbstruck. We stared at each other in silence for a long moment. Next, I conceded that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by American warplanes 60 years ago. But I insisted that only conventional bombs were used and only a few hundred people were killed. Another uncomfortable silence.

Then I admitted I was lying. The students seemed to collectively exhale in relief. The tragic reality, of course, is that hundreds of thousands of Japanese died as the result of the two atomic bombings.

The brief classroom exercise helped students imagine how citizens of Asian countries victimized by Japanese aggression during World War II feel when the Nanjing Massacre is labeled a fabrication, military sex slaves are portrayed as willing prostitutes, and forced laborers are claimed to have voluntarily toiled for Japan’s former empire.

It also gave students additional insight into why Chinese and Koreans, in particular, continue to react so indignantly to revisionist Japanese history textbooks and prime ministerial visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead.

“Japan and America” is the name of the university course. We began by exploring how Japanese immigrated to Hawaii and the American West Coast in the late 1800s and early 1900s, seeking better lives and gradually forging new identities as Japanese-Americans.

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, however, pre-existing racism and discrimination led to the incarceration of some 120,000 ethnic Japanese in 10 military-run internment camps for up to 3.5 years. Several class sessions were devoted to the grave injustice of the Japanese-American internment, focusing on the experiences of victims from my home state of California.

In subsequent class sessions, we examined the landmark Japanese-American redress movement. Congressional legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 produced a national apology and individual compensation of $20,000. Wartime internees were entitled to redress if they had spent even one day in the camps, and the government made efforts to locate eligible recipients living overseas.

I showed students copies of the apology letter and a photo of the U.S. attorney general bending down to present a reparations check to a 100-year-old Japanese American in a wheelchair. Students were also shown an internment and redress curriculum guide used in U.S. public schools today.

Japanese war responsibility was considered at the end of the course. Although numerous Americans have sought compensation from Japan for a variety of WWII-era injustices, we focused instead on the current redress movement for Chinese forced labor (CFL). This was because Fukuoka Prefecture was a major CFL center, with nearly 7,000 workers at 16 sites, and redress lawsuits remain pending in regional courts.

A total of 38,935 Chinese males between the ages of 11 and 78 were forcibly brought to Japan and made to perform harsh physical labor at mines, construction sites and docks from Kyushu to Hokkaido beginning in April 1943. While the overall death rate was 17.5 percent, at some sites half of all workers perished. Brutality was standard practice and there was little or no pretense of payment of wages. Food, clothing and shelter were provided at or below survival threshold levels.

Last semester the class watched “The Phantom Foreign Ministry Report,” NHK television’s hard-hitting 1993 expose of the Japanese government’s postwar campaign to evade accountability for Chinese forced labor by hiding evidence and deceiving the Diet. Students, including a few from China, were struck by the insincerity displayed by Japan’s government and corporations toward this ongoing war legacy issue.

A retired high school teacher visited our class as guest lecturer during a previous semester. He described his research involving a former Mitsubishi coal mine in nearby Umi-machi, where 87 out of 352 Chinese laborers (25 percent) died.

“I was shocked to hear about Chinese forced labor in Umi-machi,” one student later wrote. “I live there and didn’t know anything about it.”

My students looked at an August 2003 Diet statement in which the Koizumi administration expressed regret that “amid abnormal wartime conditions many Chinese people came to Japan in a half-forcible manner and endured many hardships due to severe work.” Although this description of “half-forced” labor is about as plausible as being half pregnant, the statement asserted that all legal claims to compensation were extinguished in 1972 by the Japan-China Joint Declaration.

Moral responsibility, most students seemed to conclude, remains.


PNS contributor William Underwood, a faculty member at Fukuoka Jo Gakuin University, is completing his doctoral dissertation at Kyushu University on the topic of Chinese forced labor redress.

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