The value of facing up to past wrongs –

There is an interesting piece over at Webdiary by Orville Schell on efforts by Tsuneo Watanabe, the Editor-in-Chief of Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, to more fully and honestly detail and acknowledge the reality of Japanese responsibility for aggression and atrocities in World War II and towards China in the Sino-Japanese war.

“Watanabe, who is now in his eighties and served in the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, was bothered by the way unfinished business concerning the war continued to hinder Japan’s progress. As a remedy, he set up a War Responsibility Re-Examination Committee at his newspaper to undertake a 14-month investigation into the causes of Japan’s Pacific War.”

As the article states, “it has never been easy for a nation to face up honestly to the bitter fact of having committed war crimes, genocide, unjustified foreign aggression, or having mistreated and killed its own people. Japan is no exception.” It is therefore no surprise that Watanabe’s efforts are assessed as falling short of being totally complete. However, it strikes me as a very important effort none the less.

This recent report on the Los Angeles Times website also describes Watanabe’s project. This link goes to a paper done by one of the newspaper’s editorial writers for a workshop held in Canberra in August last year.

These efforts in Japan may be driven in significant part by modern regional political pressures, but that in itself shows how openly accepting the committing of past wrongs can play a major role in improving the future.

While Germany may not have had much alternative, it has still done well in accepting the enormity of its past crimes as a nation. It seems to me that this preparedness to acknowledge the truth of even the most heinous of past actions has been pivotal to that nation’s ability to move forward strongly. To use acontrary example, I think Turkey’s extreme sensitivity towards any mention of its role in past crimes such as the Armenian genocide is a key part of what is halting their movement towards modernity (although the proposed French law making it illegal to deny the genocide seems to go the other extreme).

This is why it frustrates me so much when leaders, academics and other elites in Australia insist on downplaying the undeniable facts about the history of colonial Australia’s treatment of the Indigenous people. Some see the highlighting of this negative part of our history as somehow being unpatriotic or ‘talking Australia down,’ whereas I see our failure to be aware of and acknowledge this reality as holding Australia back. I also don’t see how people can see this sort of debate as having any relevance to political positioning or point-scoring today – all sides of politics and society across the centuries are culpable for allowing and in many cases initiating past atrocities and major mistreatment.

As is noted above, I know these things are never easy for a nation to face up to. But our nation’s crimes towards Indigenous people are not as comprehensive in their thoroughness as those committed by Japan in the past, so it should be easier for us to do this, and our whole nation has a lot to gain by doing so (and quite a bit to lose by not doing so).

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  1. Mr. Bartlett,

    I think that there comes a point of diminishing returns on such an undertaking involving a nation’s propensity for self-flagellation. We see this debate in America involving “African”-Americans and “Indians.” Where is the end point in such a search for a nation’s past actions and its modern day assertion of injustice? We have reached a point where many in these selective groups have eternalized phantom historical atrocities as their own. I say this a bad for society looking to make amends.

    I also think your example of Germany as an exemplar of a country owning up to its past misses very striking anecdotal evidence of an increasing dhimmified nation. In short, the relentless and perpetual self-flagellation undertaken by the German nation has made Germany very susceptible to outside Islamic imperialism.

  2. Andrew Bartlett and Everyone:

    Haven’t heard of Watanabe’s efforts but, contrary to the official line of influential political factions, he is not alone and, in speaking out, he is showing himself to be a far more patriotic and chivalrous Japanese than those flag-wavers.

    A vignette: 4 busloads of Japanese high-school students turned up at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial and museum in Nanjing, China, . They were very respectful when their teachers laid wreaths at the memorial but they soon went back to being their normal lively selves. No doubt their teachers had told them all about the systematic slaughter of 300 000 Chinese way back in late-1937~early-1938 but it hadn’t sunk in. The way into the museum is through a trench cut into one of the mass graves with glass panels separating the bones and the living. The students’ expressions changed. Then they came to hundreds of dedication ribbons that had been taken from wreaths laid at the memorial – a great many by prominent Japanese personages and well-respected Japanese organizations; names instantly recognized by the students. Inside the museum, the students could see for themselves the small poignent details of this tragedy. Then came a short documentary film – I was already in the theatre when the Japanese students, now somber, trooped in; as luck would have it, I had gone in when the Japanese version of this well-known documentary was shown. Within a few minutes of the film starting, there were gasps of horror and the sounds of sobbing thoughout the theatre. The whole thing was a terrible shock for these young Japanese. When I left after the film they were still bawling their eyes out.

    These decent young Japanese students could have been spared all that shock and distress if some cowardly and dishonorable senior Japanese had not deprived these young Japanese of part of their history; a painful, never-to-be-repeated part indeed but it is still a part of their very own history.

  3. May I quote myself Senator? Actually I dont need to.And all seeing humbug is our Thordaddy ! Kindly words spoken by ex enemies are a joy…..Perhaps Thordaddy was born on a Whaling ship…And the only way the memory of his birthplace can be appreciated is to have the fleet working,so that at least his birthplace, makes it into the Australian mind.I wonder who the captain was,and what type of whale they were after.Is there a whale called a humbug? His great grandparents probably used humbug sperm whale oil at night.More hum in the candle and more bugs for his insect collection.First ones to be seen in the Wax Museum.Trouble with moon and sun jokes is they wane,and there is also a likelihood of an eclipse.I know we were selling Fuji apples to the Japanese,but I have spit the dummy as far as Thordaddy is concerned.And hello Japan! See you again some time,when there is a chance for peace!

  4. Andrew Bartlett:
    The new French bill aiming to outlaw denial of the Armenian Genocide is probably just a move to hinder Turkey’s membership of the European Union rather that any concern about either dead Armenians or historical accuracy.

    There were plenty of opportunities over the past 91 years to show concern about the truth of what happened to Armenians under Ottoman rule when the Ottonam Empirs was at war with the Russian Empire.

    Cynical? You bet.

    I think there is a limit to how far back you can go in expressing guilt and apologizing for crimes committed against another people, tribe, nation or whatever.

    That limit is probably, at a minimum, the age of the oldest person on either side – that is, within living memory – and at a maximum, twice that number of years – that is, within the living of the oldest person who could have been known to the oldest person alive today.

    That is why saying sorry to Australian Aborigines is very appropriate – and urgent too …. and why expecting the brutal plundering Normans to apologize for invading the England of the oppressive AngloSaxons robbers back in 1066 is very inappropriate. Equally inappropriate is expecting 21st century Jews to apologize for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

    Acknowledging what evil things did happen centuries ago can be helpful …. such as what modern Spanish said about the harmful effects Columbus’ discoveries 500 years before had on the native peoples of the Americas …. but to apologize and grovel for things that happened way back in the mists of time is ridiculous, hilarious, insulting or demeaning – and sometimes all four.

  5. Where is the end point in such a search for a nation’s past actions and its modern day assertion of injustice?

    Howzabout when there is a general cultural acknowledgement that the injustice occured, a genuine and efffective attempt to repair any lasting damage caused by the injustice, and an end to efforts to deny or excuse the injustice?

  6. I think the end point is when the descendants of a past injustice begin to internalize the injustice as their own. And when those descendants of past victims begin to rationalize a contemptuous attitude towards the descendants of those thought to be guilty of past injustice then when know a country has gone too far in apologizing.

  7. What sense is there in making gentle japanese children cry? Bushido was dealt to and now do we inflict it back on the nations children?Why bother with an apology now when well over the majority of those who needed it or may have got some benefit are gone.What of future relationships? When we head into the wind it is the clouds ahead not the ones behind that in reallity get nearer.How far do we go?Chase up politicians descendants for the circumstances and crimes of their Fathers?

  8. I am inclined to also think,biologically,seeing theDemocrats have a platform about spent fuel rods,and the impact denies the genetic inheritance to be normal sometimes,any opinions on this matter relating to culture are a nonsense. The atom bomb stopped the Japanese, and even Einstein was deeply dismayed..and how many powerless Japanese, unable to vote their government out have a strange genetic inheritance? I found a book once,that Friends Of The Earth Melbourne wanted on the leaks from a Nuke power station in Japan. One of the vital reasons,even with whaling Japan is our real friend,is simply,up to now,there has been resistance to the nuke option. We havent been in a hurry,and ,my bet is that has appealed to them.Our character up to recently,as a generality, is whilst still angry and racist to some degree,the essence of reality and the possibility of the future has ruled. Apologies to those who may see a few oversights in this so far.

  9. Am really nonplussed.
    We expect Turks, Japanese, Germans etc to own up cheerfully to the shames of their past, when we can’t even face our own.
    On one hand we have the problem of internal brutality involving indigenes. To some there is no actual problem here, except in the heads of the muddled natives- no doubt led astray by crafty lefties- who have “internalised” their problems, silly ninnies.
    Many in Australia can’t come to terms with the fact that many Aborigines are brought up in the worst circumstances and turn out sadly because of what happened to Aboriginal social and cultural life through to this very time (think of Palm Island).
    No, they would rather beleive that indigenes are just crafty welfare seekers with only their malicious selves to blame for their dysfunctionality.
    We won’t mention Mulrunji. Too many Australians might be be too ashamed to have an on line “guest” from another country, a sensitive soul like Thordaddy, learn just how “Justice” operates here.
    As to the international side of this equation, can we mention
    David Hicks and his persecution by both US and Australian governments, against all concepts of fair play. Meanwhile, the Australian government’s stooges at the ATO let off AWB for cheating Australians and Iraqis alike in their “Bribe” of Saddam for naked personal gain.
    I’ll try a different tack. If Japanese or Turks have “blocks” about their past crimes, what’s the chance we Westerners might have a similar problem. Or are more enlightened Germans,Turks and Jews over Palestine just “self haters”?
    Few Westerners seem to be able to wake up to what the Middle East, East Timor or Latin America have been about. Not “democracy”. No, about the plunder of resources from the Third World poor for profit, in wilfull disregard of human “collateral damage”.
    No pity. Neitzschean hardness in a Hobbesian world- that’s the go!
    No “self- hating”.
    “Little children”, eh?

  10. Paul Walter:
    Some terrible things happened to Aborigines – things that are absolutely foolish to continue denying – and there were good things too and they must not be forgotten either.

    However, it will be decades before the truth emerges about how do-gooders (some well-meaning; some greedy, selfish or just plain nasty) helped shorten and worsen Aboriginal lives. Eventually, truth will out ….. but it would be better if the truth emerged sooner rather that later. It is all part of the fabric of our shared history.

  11. humanity’s grey areas:
    The point is not to make Japanese children cry, but to ensure that Japanese people are aware of what happened. I think a lot of people would react in a similar way to not just the massacre at Nanjing, but to the atrocities that have been committed by many nations around the world, some of which have been acknowledged more so than others.

    Your question of how far we should go is important though. I think a basic starting point is for the nation responsible should have acknowledged, apologised and at least be open about what they have done, rather than deny it.

  12. Yes, Graham Bell. All these maligned “do gooders”, left to clean up the messes left by greedy, self serving militarist, exploiters and colonisers.
    But at least their hearts have been in the right place, which is better than you can say their predecessors. And what eggs they have been left with to unscramble; let alone also having to cope with the machinations of reactionaries and vested interests.

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