I was born in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Hong Kong then was a British colony. The Sikhs who were left behind to protect British interests were no match for the Japanese Imperial Army.
As a young girl, I saw starved, emaciated bodies on our street. I still have a scar on my finger from a deep cut I got while pulling an empty sardine can from my sister’s hand for the last drops of oil.
My head was shaved to make me look like a little boy, as the horror of the systematic rape of women in Nanking struck terror throughout Asia. I learned to say “Thank you, thank you” in Japanese as the soldiers burst through our doors to do their searches day or night.
At least 20 million Chinese civilians, and millions of other Asians, died in World War II because of Japan’s dream to become the true master of what were then militarily weak and poor Asian nations.
America was then an inward-looking country, interested in its own nation building, and it only belatedly joined the Western allies in the war. The beginning of Japan’s full-scale aggression in China in 1937 received scant interest in America. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 brought America into the war.
The atomic bomb that brought horrific destruction four years later quickly ended the protracted bloody Pacific Rim battles and ultimately spared more Japanese civilians from a final invasion of their motherland, while liberating millions under Japanese occupation.
Over more than half a century, the Japanese government has successfully focused on rehabilitating its standing in the powerful West by portraying Japan as a “victim” of the atomic bomb. Many in the West who saw the devastation (photos in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, with no accompanying explanations of how the war began in Asia) felt “guilty” as America, the first country that used the “bomb,” accepted Japan’s claim of victimhood. Few in the West cared much about the 30-million-plus civilian casualties as a result of Japanese aggression.
Morally, can one argue that death from being repeatedly gang-raped, or at the hands of saber-wielding Japanese soldiers in a game, or from starvation when there was no more bark on the trees to eat was more acceptable than quick death from blast and radiation? Aren’t other Asian lives lost to Japan’s wanton killing just as valuable as the Japanese lives lost as Japan waged war against its neighbors? Will President Obama answer this question when he visits Hiroshima? Some 3.8 million Americans of Chinese descent, and millions more Asian-Americans, await his answer.
Unlike Germany, which has made its World War II conduct a searing history lesson in the hearts, minds and souls of its citizens, now and forever, Japan has not confronted its dark past honestly and courageously. Officials continue to visit the national shrine that honors their war criminals. Children’s textbooks were written to minimize their elders’ role as the warmongering perpetrators of World War II in Asia. Ten years ago, when author Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking” became a bestseller, Japan responded with cartoon books denying the massacre that were widely read by the public.
An entire Japanese generation was raised on a steady diet of whitewashed history and denial. On the other hand, a China that is no longer poor through its modernization and industrialization has continued to educate its young to remember World War II history as it happened to their families and their land. China also has a Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.
What will the future hold for these two neighbors — with one that denies its past and claims victimhood, while the other teaches its people never to forget?
Obama, as the leader of a strong country whose public opinion is of great concern to Japan, has a historic opportunity and moral obligation to right a wrong and to urge the leaders of Japan to confront their nation’s dark past with truth and courage. His efforts will sow the seeds for genuine reconciliation and peace.
It will be a most cynical scenario if Obama’s visit were to further validate Japan’s claim of victimhood for the sake of America’s shortsighted geopolitical calculations.
Kaimay Yuen Terry lives in Wayzata.