Jewish World Review August 15, 2005 / 10 Av, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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So sorry | I was honored. On his swing through Little Rock not long ago, the Japanese consul in New Orleans specifically asked to see me.

But it wasn't to ask for my autograph. He dropped in to straighten me out, though, being a diplomat, he would never use such plain language.

Instead, Masaru Sokato offered to supply me with better information than the accounts I had relied on in writing about the Rape of Nanking — a six-weeks-long orgy of rape, murder and torture in 1937-38, which a new Japanese textbook refers to as "the Nanking incident."

The consul general seemed genuinely puzzled how I could conclude that today's Japanese were minimizing their country's crimes during the Second World War.

I may not be the only one with that impression. Mass protests broke out on the Chinese mainland when word about the new textbook spread. And it's not just one textbook but a whole attitude that inspires these periodic protests in China and South Korea, and throughout what the Japanese once called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere —their euphemism for Japan's conquests.

Exact figures are sketchy, but the best estimate of historians is that Japanese forces enslaved or killed 3 to 4 million people during the Second World War. Then there were the women forced to become prostitutes for the troops ("comfort women"), and the biological and chemical experiments on captive subjects . . . .

Angry demonstrations break out elsewhere in Asia every time Japan's prime minister undertakes one of his pilgrimages to the Yakusuni Shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan's war dead — including General Hideki Tojo and 13 other Japanese leaders convicted in post-war trials as Class A war criminals.

But my visitor couldn't seem to understand why I should have written that, "unlike Germany, Japan has never fully faced its past with all its atrocities and aggressions, which were certainly not limited to the Rape of Nanking."

After all, he pointed out, his government regularly issues official statements expressing remorse for what happened. He would later send me three of them, but they all had the remote sound of apologies required by the diplomatic niceties:

"During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries . . . ." — Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, Aug. 15, 1995.

A mistaken policy and not a deliberate campaign of greed, conquest and aggression?

These pro-form performances bring to mind an article in the International Herald Tribune a few weeks ago by Kazuo Ogoura, an academic and former ambassador who now heads the Japan Foundation.

"In the international community," he wrote, "justice is defined by the victors, and as long as Japan has submitted to that justice, it must remember at all times to maintain an attitude of humility and remorse — even when the charges, viewed objectively and historically, seem unfair."

Compare that statement to the courageous confession German president Richard von Weizsacker delivered before the Bundestag on May 8, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the war's end in Europe:

"We must find our own standards. We are not assisted in this task if we or others spare our feelings. We need and have the strength to look truth straight in the eye — without embellishment and without distortion . . . ."

One of those truths, said the German president, is that "the 8th of May was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National Socialist regime."

Today's Berlin is filled with reminders of a painful past. The latest is Peter Eisenman's memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, a series of more than 2,700 concrete slabs covering a field as big as two football fields in the heart of the city near the Brandenburg Gate.

I ask my distinguished visitor if there are any memorials to the victims of Japanese aggression in Japan itself. There's one on Okinawa, he says, to all the victims of the war there. "And the home islands?" I ask. "In Tokyo?"

He can't think of a one. But he did give me an historical summary of Western colonialism in Asia during the 19th century, and tell me how aggrieved the Japanese felt at being left out of the spoils.

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It is like ships passing in the night. A dark, moonless night with nary a star to be seen.

"Look," I finally say, "as one human being to another, wouldn't you agree that Japan has lagged behind in its recognition of what happened during the war?"

For a moment I think, or I imagine, that the mask has fallen, and human contact has been made.

But then my visitor is the professional again. "No,'' he says, "not lag behind." But rather "a gap in advancement."

Something tells me Consul General Sokato will go far in the diplomatic corps.

Then it is time to part. I thank my guest for taking the time to visit while David Barham, an editorial writer here who sat in on our conversation, sees him out. A moment later, David returns with a final word from Mr. Sakato: If I write anything about our meeting, he won't be able to talk to me in the future.

What a pity. I will miss his company. But I think I can bear up.

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