The Role of the United States in the History Problem

The critical examination of the government-centered view of war responsibility also helps clarify the role of the United States in East Asia’s history problem. During the Occupation, the US government preferred attributing Japan’s war responsibility to only a small number of government leaders, while absolving both the emperor and the people. SCAP also censored criticisms of the Tokyo Trial not only by Japanese nationalists but also by leftist intellectuals who questioned the trial’s failure to prosecute Japan’s colonial rule of Korea and Taiwan.86 More importantly, the US Cold War policy had significant influence on the trajectory of the history problem. First, SCAP permitted Japan’s “amnesia” of its past wrongdoings by prioritizing reconstruction and rearmament of Japan over demilitarization and democratization, as well as by allowing former war criminals to return to power. Second, Japan and South Korea normalized their relations in the 1960s partly because the US government pressed the two countries toward greater cooperation given its geopolitical and economic needs at the height of the Vietnam War. Similarly, Japan was able to normalize its relations with China only after the US government changed its policies toward China and Taiwan in the early 1970s.87 Most recently, the US government put pressure on Abe to refrain from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, seek friendlier relations with South Korea and China, and reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution to expand the scope of overseas deployment of the SDF. Thus, the history problem in “East Asia” is transnational to the extent that it includes the United States as a relevant political actor.88

The indirect but deep involvement of the United States in the history problem poses a formidable obstacle to any attempt to critically reassess the historical judgment of the Tokyo Trial. This is because such a reassessment would challenge the American commemoration of the “good war,” wherein the good United States triumphed over the evil Japanese empire. This good- war commemoration—coterminous with the Tokyo Trial historical view— was foundational to American identity as a champion of justice, democracy, and freedom throughout the entire postwar period. In a way, the A-bomb poet Kurihara Sadako foresaw the crucial role of the United States in the history probl em. Although Kurihara’s famous 1976 poem opens with the question, “When we say ‘Hiroshima,’ / do people answer, gently, / ‘Ah, Hiroshima’?,” the first thing readers hear—before the “anger” spit out by Asia’s dead and her voiceless masses—is “Pearl Harbor,” by the American voice.89

Indeed, for the sake of building their alliance, the governments of Japan and the United States treated the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings as if they cancelled each other out. After returning from the United States in October 1975, for example, Prime Minister Miki Takeo emphasized the “forward-looking” (mirai shiko) nature of his meeting with US president Gerald Ford and argued that it was unnecessary to “bring up the past, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombing of Hi- roshima.”90 Moreover, when JCP member Yoshioka Yoshinori argued that Japan should apologize to the United States on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kaifu Toshiki’s government rejected the necessity of such apology because “apology for the attack on Pearl Harbor has never been an issue in Japan’s relations with the United States.”91 In turn, when President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton justified the atomic bombings and rejected the necessity of offering apologies to A-bomb victims, the Japanese government remained silent, even though the JSP and the JCP demanded an official protest against the US presidents.92 As long as the Japanese and US governments refuse to fully confront the atrocities that they committed against each other, they are likely to perpetuate their respective nationalist commemorations: the attack on Pearl Harbor is justified as part of the war to defend Japan against the West, while the atomic bombings are justified to avenge Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and to save American lives.

Nevertheless, the disjunction between the Japanese and American nationalist commemorations did not develop into a history problem because the two countries avoided interfering with each other’s domestic commemorations. In the mid-1990s, however, the United States began to criticize Japanese commemorations of Japan’s past wrongdoings against South Korea and China, for a growing number of Asian Americans became interested and involved in East Asia’s history problem.93 Korean and Chinese Americans, in particular, actively commemorated Korean and Chinese victims and shared with other Americans their critical attitudes toward Japan’s official commemoration. For example, Korean Americans created the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues in 1992 to lobby American politicians to press the Japanese government with regard to apologies and compensation for former comfort women.94 Chinese Americans also played a major role in launching The Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia in 1994 to promote commemorations of Japan’s wartime atrocities and lobby politicians in the United States, Canada, and other countries.95

Typically, American citizens criticized Japan’s official commemoration by asserting their moral superiority. Take, for example, the exchange between Iris Chang and Saito Kunihiko, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, on the PBS NewsHour program moderated by Elizabeth Farnsworth in December 1998. After criticizing the Japanese government for failing to apologize to Chinese victims of Japan’s past aggression, Chang said, “What I’m curious to know is can the ambassador, himself, say today on national TV live that he personally is profoundly sorry for the rape of Nanking and other war crimes against China, and the Japanese responsibility for it?” Saito responded, “Well, we do recognize that acts of cruelty and violence were committed by members of the Japanese military and we are very sorry for that. . . . As to the incident in Nanking, we do recognize that really unfortunate things happened, acts of viol ence were committed by members of the Japanese military.” Then, Farnsworth asked Chang, “Did you hear an apology?” thus authorizing the Chinese American writer to determine the worth of Saito’s statement. Chang replied, “I don’t know. Did you hear an apology? I didn’t really hear the word ‘apology’ that was made.”96 The foregoing exchange illustrated not simply a lack of decisive apology on Japan’s part. It also exposed the assumption, shared by Farnsworth and Chang, that Americans had the moral authority to judge the worth of Japan’s official commemoration on behalf of Chinese victims.

This assumption about the moral authority of the United States is coterminous with the US refusal to apologize to victims of the atomic bombings by justifying the act as a means to end the war and save “half a million American lives.”97 This justification is deeply anchored in the nationalist logic of commemoration that disregards how foreign others—the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—suffered. By refusing to confront the real human consequences of the atomic bombings, American nationalist commemoration eliminates the moral ambiguity of the bombings and protects the moral authority of the United States. Even though this nationalist commemoration has been challenged by critically minded American historians, it is still widespread among politicians and citizens in the United States.98

As Tzvetan Todorov pointed out, “Revisiting historical episodes in which one’s own group was neither 100 percent heroic nor the complete victim would be an act of higher moral value for writers of historical narratives.

No moral benefit can accrue from always identifying with the ‘right side’ of history; it can only arise when writing history makes the writer more aware of the weakness and wrong turns of his or her own community.”99 In this regard, Korean and Chinese Americans are prone to falling into the trap of nationalist commemoration because they can easily combine the “100 percent heroic” American narrative of the Asia-Pacific War with the Korean and Chinese narratives of “the complete victim.” For example, following the 2007 US House of Representatives House Resolution 121, Korean Americans and their supporters lobbied state legislatures in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois to adopt similar resolutions to condemn Japan for violating women’s human rights through military comfort stations. They also helped create memorials for comfort women in New York and New Jersey as well as erect a statue of a thirteen-year-old comfort woman—the same as the one in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul—in California in July 20 1 3.100 Even though these resolutions and memorials express cosmopolitan commemoration based on human rights, they also risk doubling the logic of nationalism; that is, they commemorate Korean comfort women as complete victims from the American perspective, which assumes the United States to be the complete hero and moral authority, while ignoring atrocities that it committed against Japanese civilians. Similarly, the WWII Pacific War Memorial Hall, which opened in San Francisco in August 2015, appears to adopt a doubly nationalist commemoration, focusing on the suffering of Chinese victims and the heroism of American and Chinese soldiers.101 But, if Korean and Chinese Americans criticize Japan without critically reflecting on their own nationalism vis-a-vis the problems of the Tokyo Trial, they may very well add fuel to nationalist commemorations on all sides in East Asia, making the history problem intractable.

In short, there are both negative and positive aspects in the growing involvement of the United States in East Asia’s history problem. On the one hand, it may well make the problem even more protracted. Every time politicians and citizens in the United States call on Japan to apologize to victims of its past wrongdoings, they risk reinforcing resentment and ambivalence toward the Tokyo Trial among Japanese nationalists and citizens, thereby discouraging them from confronting Japan’s past wrongdoings against South Korea and China. On the other hand, if the American commemoration of the Asia-Pacific War moves in the direction suggested by Todorov, it will not only ease the ambivalence among Japanese citizens and encourage them to fully commemorate the suffering of South Korean and Chinese victims; it will also set an example for the Japanese government to follow in confronting its “weakness and wrong turns” of the past. Thus, if the United States participates in the history problem in a selfcritical and cosmopolitan manner, it can greatly help the governments and citizens in Japan, South Korea, and China to disentangle their nationalist commemorations from the Tokyo Trial and, instead, adopt more cosmopolitan commemorations toward each other.

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