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The Nikkei View

Lessons of war Japan should pass on to next generation

Abe's 70th-anniversary statement lays clear the issues

Seventy-five years have passed since that fateful summer day when Japanese Emperor Hirohito, through a radio address, announced to the people that the country was accepting unconditional surrender, an act that closed the curtain on World War II.

On this anniversary, we express our condolences to the many people who have fallen, both domestic and foreign, and renew our commitment to peace.

This year's Aug. 15 came amid the novel coronavirus crisis. Much of the media coverage focused on the pandemic's impact on the end-of-war anniversary, such as the greatly reduced attendance at the National Memorial Service for War Dead, an annual Japanese ceremony held to commemorate the victims of World War II.

Considering that COVID-19 is perceived as perhaps the greatest challenge Japan has faced since WWII, this is understandable.

But it must not be an excuse to look away from the fundamental argument of what Japan needs to learn from the war and how we think of the path ahead. Already, some criticize the fact that Japan tends to only think about these issues in the month of August. We must not allow this topic to fade away.

Past Japanese newspaper editorials have often talked of the need to pass on to future generations memories and lessons of the war.

What, then, should we pass on?

As many as 3.1 million Japanese are said to have died in WWII. Through air raids, the Battle of Okinawa and the two atomic bombs, countless soldiers and citizens lost their lives. Teaching the younger generation of these tragedies serves as one way to deter future wars.

But it is surely inadequate to only talk about the sacrifices the Japanese people had to make. That Japan inflicted tremendous hardships on the countries of Asia is an undeniable fact.

Disturbingly, books that glorify Japan's actions through those years as some kind of "crusade" to free Asia from Western colonialism are selling well. While war does have many aspects to it, it is worrying that such analyses plant a mistaken view of history among the youth.

Amid such trends, there is one document worth reading again. It is the statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued five years ago on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

At that time, the statement was criticized for its weak expressions of apology compared with the statement from former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama two decades prior, on the 50th anniversary. 

But it did make one thing crystal clear. It drew a line between the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the wars of the Showa period (1926-1989) that followed.

On the former, the statement said: "The Japan-Russia War gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa."

On the latter wars, it slammed Japan's actions as an attempt to "overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force."

What, then, separated the two? It was the 1928 General Treaty for Renunciation of War, drafted after witnessing the devastation of World War I. Signed by the world's major countries, it reflected a new tide in the international community outlawing war itself.

It was the Manchurian Incident, triggered by Japan, that first broke the new international order. It came before Nazi Germany's invasion of its neighbors, and it can be said that it was Japan that took the opening shot that led to WWII.

"In China, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and elsewhere that became the battlefields, numerous innocent citizens suffered and fell victim to battles as well as hardships such as severe deprivation of food," Abe's statement said.

"We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured," it added.

The statement rejects the "crusade" theory. It is on the website of the prime minister's office and is there for anyone to read.

Revisiting history is a trend also seen in Western countries this year. In the U.S., following the murder of George Floyd, there were attempts to bring down a statue of a Confederate general. Over in the U.K., a statue of a slave trader was toppled.

There is debate over whether it is right to judge people of the past. History is always tricky in any part of the world.

But that does not allow us to look the other way. In Germany, Japan's former ally, the government has acknowledged the mistakes of Adolf Hitler in no uncertain terms, banned Nazism and continued to take responsibility for the war.

The fact that Japan's postwar pursuit of responsibility has been lukewarm at best is reflected in the enshrinement of wartime leaders such as former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo at Yasukuni Shrine.

By lumping together the leaders who recklessly took the country into war, and regular citizens who were drafted and sent to their deaths, the simple act of honoring fallen soldiers has continued to be an awkward task in Japan.

With the passing of time, the generation who experienced war firsthand is about to leave us. Many things will inevitably be forgotten.

But as war moves on from being a personal memory to a page in history, it will become easier to discuss the topic in a calm, quiet way.

What do we pass on? We should begin from there.

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