V-J Day Anniversary Finds Shifting Attitudes

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On the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, the Japanese people are of two minds, willing to acknowledge, as Prime Minister Koizumi did, that Japan inflicted great harm and suffering on the people of Asia during World War II. But many also admit to feeling pride in Japanese accomplishments before and after the war.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Sixty years ago today, Japan surrendered, and World War II came to an end. The conflict took 20 million lives in Asia and the Pacific, three million in Japan alone. As Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo, Japan and its neighbors still have not come to terms with the war, and that makes relations in the region difficult.

LUCY CRAFT reporting:

If you want to understand why Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine provokes such extreme reactions, pay a visit to the lavish shrine museum right next door.

Mr. JAMES TAYLOR (British Historian): It presents a very partial view of particularly the Japanese entry into the Second World War and its conduct of the war.

CRAFT: British historian James Taylor was escorting students recently through the extensive museum, rebuilt by a conservative group several years ago at a cost of $40 million. Between the Zero fighter plane and kamikaze letters home to mom, visitors are taught, for instance, that, even in defeat, Japan inspired other Asian countries to fight for their independence.

(Soundbite of cicadas)

CRAFT: Outside, surrounded by the wail of cicadas, is the controversial Yasukuni Shinto Shrine. Every year, as predictably as the arrival of the summer insects, Japanese officials flock to Yasukuni, which honors fallen soldiers, including designated class A war criminals. Just as predictably, the high-level visits to Yasukuni send Asian countries into rage.

But while Japanese leaders light their incense at Yasukuni, at a sumo arena right across the street, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi today told thousands of bereaved family members that Japan inflicted great harm and suffering on the people of Asia and that Japan would strive to promote peace.

Prime Minister JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI (Japan): (Japanese spoken)

CRAFT: Indeed, when it comes to the war, Japan is of two minds. While some school boards adopt a history textbook that Asian countries say whitewashes Japan's wartime atrocities, bookstores are selling out of the history written jointly by Chinese, Korean and Japanese scholars presenting an unvarnished view of the war. A survey released today by the Mainichi, a major daily newspaper, finds that just under half of the respondents believe Japan was wrong to attack China and the US, while one-third say the war was inevitable.

Scholar Andrew Horvat explains that 60 years on, Japanese feel as much the aggressor at the victim of World War II. That is not the same, he says, as chauvinistic nationalism.

Mr. ANDREW HORVAT (Scholar): Due to the fact that France has become extremely nationalistic with a very large number of French voters voting for Monsieur Le Pen, who is also anti-Semitic--by that, he also dislikes Arabs as well as Jews--I think that that is potentially a far greater threat to Europe and the world than the fact that a number of Japanese politicians have made rather vociferous statements.

CRAFT: While the Japanese government has, in response to US pressure, slightly eased its official anti-war stance, Japan remains so allergic to anything military, it goes to extreme lengths to avoid even the appearance of having an offensive force, says Akiko Fukushima(ph), a policy analyst with the National Institute for Research.

Ms. AKIKO FUKUSHIMA (Policy Analyst, National Institute for Research): Have you ever seen Japanese Self-Defense Force individuals walk in the street in their uniforms? They always come in their private outfit and then go into the agency building and change to uniforms. When they go out in uniforms, they go in a car, not in a mass transit.

CRAFT: Scholar Andrew Horvat says that unlike Europe, which has managed to become a borderless community economically and with the help of regional defense treaties, World War II remains an unfinished business in Asia.

Mr. HORVAT: Many Japanese feel that after the war, the view of history which Japan had to accept as a defeated nation gave Japan absolutely no opportunity to feel any pride whatsoever about its past. You know, there were some really reprehensible acts, like the Rape of Nanking, the Unit 731 which experimented on Chinese POWs with bacteriological warfare. But at the same time, through Japanese colonialism, we see the transfer of an enormous amount of potentially beneficial economic development, the building of dams in Korea, the building of railways on Taiwan, which, of course, the Japanese did not do in order to be kind to these people, but the consequences of which really did help to develop the rest of Asia.

CRAFT: What Japanese are struggling with, says Horvat, is to find a healthy brand of nationalism, the kind Americans take for granted. For NPR News, I'm Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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