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Japan's Sorry Failure to Own Up to Its History

"The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it," quipped Oscar Wilde, the cynical playwright whose epigrams mocked his nation’s pious-but-phony rationale for empire building.*

When facts haven’t faded or been accidentally twisted, students of history easily identify self-serving rewrites. What makes the Japanese Government’s denial of past imperial war crimes mendacious is that few victims and eye-witnesses are still alive. But time will correct this inconvenience.

Many courageous Japanese World War II veterans, historians, teachers, and others of moral conscience are frustrated and penalized when they attempt to inform an apathetic Japanese public. The official blanket of historical amnesia effectively smothers the memory of war crimes. Japanese born two generations after the crimes neither know nor care. Germany admitted its war guilt and painstakingly redeemed itself from its Nazi past by educating subsequent generations about its dark past. But Japan rejoined the victors without admission of guilt or remorse, and History's grim lessons are hidden from its people.

Truth's first victim of war is also its last. Historicity is denied with misleading terms and arithmetic amnesia that undercount the totals of tens of thousands of rape, torture and murder victims by simply dropping zeros. Current Japanese history texts sanitize the Rape of Nanking as a minor incident; the number of comfort women sex slaves are disputed; and the other horrific crimes of Japanese imperialism are omitted. With each new rewrite of high school and college history texts, the crimes are further blurred and lessened.

Does the Japanese Government intend to deny the documented war crimes until the last victims and witnesses finally die off? Yes, because the Japanese view themselves as innocent victims of WWII. Culturally, Japan believes that its victimhood is more relevant than the unpublicized evils inflicted upon millions who suffered under its cruel military rule.

Japan's response to the outraged cries of survivors and astonished historians echoes the comic’s retort when caught in the act: "Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?" But no laughs are found in this insult to truth.

The official spin is supported by the racial memory of U.S. atomic bombs exploding over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as Japan’s steadfast role as junior partner of the U.S. during the Cold War, the ancillary Korean Conflict and beyond. Unspoken but obvious at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is that Asians are the only victims of Caucasian nuclear weaponry used against civilian populations. And unknowing Japanese wonder why.

Japanese students don’t know that the Imperial Japanese military forces deliberately murdered countless more innocent Asian civilians than the combined death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as all the other air raids. The decision to use atomic bombs continues to be debated because, unlike Japan’s denied war crimes, the facts about America’s war decisions are public record.

To deny the crimes of the imperial past is to dishonor the innocent Japanese of the present and future. No one should be held accountable for the sins of their grandfathers. But why keep Japan’s crimes out of the history texts studied by the next generation of Japanese leaders?

In her best-seller, The Rape of Nanking, the late Iris Chang subtitled her historical account, The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. And 'forgotten' is exactly what the current Japanese leadership wants as it continues its vital role as staunch ally, prosperous trading partner and America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier off the Chinese Mainland.

Readers of my newly published novel, The Gook Lover, frequently ask if the war crimes I described really happened. My response: "I wish it were fiction but it’s not."

I wrote The Gook Lover not only to honor the forgotten victims, but to show that the unintended consequences of old colonialism’s demise has made us, regardless of race and culture, who we are. In the words of the novel’s protagonist, Tomi Tomigawa: "If one is despised as a gook, then we are all gooks. The world’s future depends upon our mutual respect and compassion."

*Another Oscar -- Levant -- defined an epigram as "A wisecrack that played Carnegie Hall." To me, a successful epigram is an historical thought that fits on a bumper sticker such as "Don't Launder History."