During this week in our Global History IV course, we’ve examined human rights violations that prior to this week we probably unthinkable beforehand, with the 1937 Japanese invasion of China. I’ve also asked my intrepid students to consider the idea of whether justice is feasible here (should those responsible should still be prosecuted for their crimes). The students have been quite passionate in their arguments on both sides of the issue (these were criminal acts committed over 50 years ago v. the victims of these activities, regardless of time passed, deserve justice). As we have examined the events through the documentary Nanking,the question keeps coming up: is a truly fair sense of justice possible with crimes of this magnitude? Why or why not?
“China and Japan Spar Over War Trials, More Than Six Decades On”, Didi Kristen Tarlow, New York Times, March 20, 2013
BEIJING – What would international reaction be if Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, were to publicly cast doubt on the fairness of the Nuremberg Trials, which condemned top Nazis at the end of World War II?
Something quite similar may have happened recently in Japan, where, according to media reports, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cast doubt on the Tokyo Trials there (these found about two dozen prominent Japanese guilty of war crimes; seven were sentenced to death).
Here’s a headline from the Japan Daily Press: “PM Abe says WWII war crime trials were just ‘victors’ justice.’ ”
“In a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee last Tuesday, Abe said that what the world now thinks of the outcome of World War II was dictated by the victorious Allied Forces and it is only under their judgement that the Japanese were condemned,” the Japan Daily Press article said, citing an article in The Telegraph.
World War II is still a sensitive topic not just in China but further afield in Asia, where memories of brutality by the invading Japanese Imperial Army linger and many believe that Japan, unlike Germany, has never entirely faced up to what it did. Memories may be bitterest in China, where millions died and where the government uses anti-Japanese sentiment to bolster nationalism.
This week there was a response in China to Abe’s comments, and it took an unusually scholarly form: The National Library of China announced it would for the first time publish what it said was its original historical documents and records of the trials, in which Chinese judges and prosecutors took part, to be called “Records of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East” (as the court was formally known). The collection will be published starting in June and will be in two parts; 80 volumes of trial records, to be followed by 50 additional volumes of archival materials and references, reported the China Culture News, a newspaper owned by the Ministry of Culture.
The report promised that the documents, which will be available to researchers and ordinary readers, would push back against “rightists” in Japan who deny the justice of the trials or other aspects of World War II history, long a complaint of China’s.
“On Mar. 3, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at a parliamentary budget meeting, openly called into question the Tokyo Trials,” the China Culture News wrote, citing Gao Hong, a researcher at the library and head of document preservation from the Republican era (1911-1949). The new collection “will become a powerful tool for refuting the opinions of Japanese rightists and conservatives who distort or deny the historical truth about the invasion of China.”
Last year the library, together with Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, set up an institute to study the trials, called the Tokyo Trials Research Center, it said.
Yet if China accuses rightists in Japan of distorting the debate over the war, historians have said that China has done so too.
After the war, the Chinese Communist Party glossed over wartime atrocities, to “avoid engendering national hatred towards Japan that would have confused it with China’s true archenemies, the KMT,” or Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalists, “and the United States,” wrote He Yinan in an essay in a book, “Japan’s Relations with China: Facing a Rising Power.”
“One thing it did was to suppress domestic truth-telling about Japanese war crimes and Chinese suffering,” Ms. He wrote.
The article in the China Culture News may have acknowledged that problem, if obliquely. “For a long time, because of various historical reasons, there has been a great deal of urgent work that has needed to be done to extend the accumulation, thorough research and international scholarly exchanges on the first-hand materials of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East,” it said.