Seventy-three years after the Bataan Death March — the Japanese military's brutal forced march of Filipino and American POWs that resulted in thousands of deaths — survivors and their family members are waging a war of words with Japan. And the addition of American voices to the chorus of complaints by Japan's neighbors about war crimes during the Second World War may mark a new phase in a long-running — and sometimes very cynical — debate.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regularly takes flak for continuing to downplay his nation's WWII war crimes. After visiting Yasukuni Shrine, a religious site commemorating many decades of Japan's war dead, Abe was criticized by foreign neighbors and by some within Japan because a number of convicted Japanese WWII war criminals are among the millions honored there. He has also claimed that "comfort women" — local women in Japanese occupied territory around the time of WWII who were rounded up and forced into brothels — were voluntary prostitutes rather than imprisoned sex slaves. That claim has provoked worldwide outrage.
Abe's loudest critics are his neighbors in Asia, especially China and South Korea. But on March 18, an American veteran's group sent a letter to Congress demanding that Abe apologize for Japanese war crimes during a speech he's expected to give in April to both houses of Congress.
The group, the American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society, said in the letter that they "want Congress to only extend the invitation to Prime Minister Abe to speak at the podium of Roosevelt and Churchill if they are assured that he will acknowledge that Japan's defeat released the country from the venom of fascism and the inhuman goals of a criminal regime."
The society was originally founded by American survivors of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, and it's now led by their children and grandchildren. They are dedicated to remembering the sacrifice made by American soldiers during the invasion — and particularly during the Bataan Death March that followed it.
In 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese expanded swiftly across the Pacific, capturing numerous possessions of the Dutch, British, and Americans — including the Philippine Islands. After several months of combat along the Bataan peninsula, the Japanese forced the surrender of thousands of Filipino and American soldiers in April 1942. The survivors of the battle were forced to march 65 miles with little or no food or water. Those who fell behind were often clubbed or bayonetted to death. No one knows exactly how many prisoners died, but estimates range from 2,000 to 10,000 or more.
Whether the society's letter to Congress will have any effect remains to be seen, but it won't sway Abe, who has made his name in Japanese politics in part by refusing to back down from external pressure to condemn Japan's military past. Further, he's an avid supporter of strengthening Japan's military and reinterpreting the restraints imposed on the Japanese Self-Defense Forces after the war. The result is an administration that is at least irksome and at worst frightening to the nations that Japan occupied 70 years ago.
Internal politics bleeds over to foreign policy for nearly everyone involved. Every time Abe visits Yasukuni or talks about how some of the Japanese war criminals condemned at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials weren't guilty, he gives Chinese and South Korean leaders the chance to stir up resentment against Japan. That resentment helps those leaders stay in power by giving them an external threat to play off of. Abe is playing the same game himself within Japan; by stirring up nationalistic feelings, especially among the right-wing elements of his political base, Abe has kept himself in office and has become the first to have two non-consecutive terms since the 1940s.
In America, there is little to no electoral juice to be found in condemning Abe's attempts to rewrite history. Memories in America tend to be shorter, and Japan became a close Cold War and economic ally. With Obama's "Pacific pivot" now supposedly underway, the US has even less reason to want to alienate the Japanese.
But some alienation may be inevitable. While Abe will be visiting the US at the end of April and is expected to be the first Japanese prime minister to address both houses of Congress, he isn't the only Asian leader on his way to the States. President Xi Jinping of China is scheduled to visit in September, and it may be impossible to keep both Abe and Xi happy. Further complicating matters is the fact that South Korea's President Geun-hye Park has often and loudly "expressed concern" over Abe's nationalistic rhetoric. Balancing Japanese, Chinese, and Korean desires will require nimble diplomacy from the Obama administration — not often its strong suit.
When Angela Merkel became the first German chancellor in 50 years to address both houses of Congress in 2009, she not only thanked the US for its support of Germany, she also admitted the horrible crimes perpetrated by her nation during WWII. The American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society no doubt hope Abe follows the lead of his country's WWII ally.
Follow Jonathan Gad on Twitter: @jng2058
Photo via US Department of Defense