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Japanese War Crimes

Japanese War Crimes

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Imperial Japan engaged in a number of horrendous practices that have since been identified as war crimes. Between 1937 and 1945, for example, as part of the fighting of World War II, Japanese forces murdered between 3 and 10 million people, including prisoners of war from western nations. The most famous of these was the Nanking Massacre between 1937 and 1938 when the Japanese army was responsible for the torture and deaths of up to 300,000 civilians and prisoners of war. As with any extreme displays of brutality such as this, the exact death toll can never be fully realized. From 1942 to 1945, Japan engaged in the "three alls" policy - kill all, burn all, loot all - as a systematic tactic of war. While using this tactic against enemy military forces might not be considered a war crime, carrying it out on civilians certainly is.

Other examples of Japanese war crimes included the following:

  1. Human experimentation on prisoners of war and civilians in China;
  2. Significant surgeries, including amputations, without the use of anesthesia and testing various biological weapons on human subjects.
  3. Japanese military personnel would torture prisoners in an attempt to collect intelligence; Allied airmen who were captured were systematically executed.
  4. Prisoners of war and civilians throughout Asia were used as forced labor by the Japanese military, possibly numbering as high as 20 million people.
  5. One war crime, that of forcing women into sexual slavery as "comfort women," was carried out against more than 200,000 women and is often overlooked when compared to the various atrocities carried out by Imperial Japan.

Unfortunately, many of the most significant failures of postwar Japan are related to the notorious inability of the nation and its people to come to terms with the terrible historical memories associated with the Second World War. Indeed, Japanese officials have spent much of the postwar period rewriting their nation's history so as to paper over and minimize the negative aims and impacts of Imperial Japan during World War II. Some analysts suggest that the heady economic prosperity of the postwar decades has in fact allowed the Japanese people to forego the contemplation of their nation's brutal and often criminal treatment of the citizens of other nations before and during the World War II years.

The denial and downplaying of Japan's World War II history has persisted well into the contemporary period. In fact, it was not until after the death of World War II Emperor Hirohito in January 1989 that the government of Japan finally began to address the nation's wartime deeds. For instance, Hirohito's eldest son, the new Emperor Akihito, issued the first formal apology for Japan's colonial abuses of the Korean people only in May 1990-some eighty years after Japan annexed and then colonized Korea. In 1992, Akihito also expressed his "profound regret" for the numerous sufferings Japan had perpetrated upon the people of China during the war years. Further apologies were issued by the Japanese government after the longruling Liberal Democratic party was finally voted out of office in 1993.

Yet even now many elements in Japan are reluctant to discuss or even acknowledge the nation's guilty past. Thus, although a 1995 resolution from the lower house of the Japanese parliament or Diet expressed hansei (an ambiguous term that could mean self-examination, reflection, or remorse,) for the sufferings inflicted particularly against Asian peoples during World War II, the resolution "pointedly eschewed" the use of the term "apology". Moreover, despite the rather tepid language of the resolution, it passed with the support of only 230 of the 511 members of the lower house, with the majority of members either boycotting the vote or voting against it. Various developments in recent years also appear indicative of efforts to further revise Japan's wartime deeds, including officially-sanctioned movie portrayals glorifying war criminals as honorable warriors, attempts to revitalize the traditional Shinto religion that had played central roles in Japan's World War II propaganda, and official and popular denials that the infamous and horrific massacres of Chinese at Nanking ever occurred.

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