A Japanese blind spot to a brutal past

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the country's war dead, sparked anger across China and Korea(AP)

On 17 January 2014, Hiroo Onoda, the last surviving member of Japan's World War II Armed Forces to surrender, died in Tokyo aged 91. He was the gentleman who captured worldwide attention in March 1974 when, after nearly 29 years continuing the fight for his Emperor in the jungle on Lubang Island in the Philippines, he finally agreed to hand himself in.

Lieutenant Onoda had been an intelligence officer and guerrilla tactics instructor in the Japanese Army and only agreed to surrender after his old commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, was flown to the Philippines to give him a direct order to do so. This was after several previous attempts, which he had put down to enemy misinformation, had failed.

Given his branch of the service, in 1945 as the main Japanese forces were being withdrawn from the Philippines, Lt Onoda and a few other men had been given specific orders to continue the fight and had been forbidden to commit suicide. No doubt convinced of his country's ultimate victory and being involved in occasional fire fights with the locals, this officer also interpreted the constant United States B52 bomber sorties flown from bases nearby during the Vietnam War, as evidence that the Allied struggle against the Japanese Empire continued.

On 11 March 1974 at the Malacanan Palace in Manilla, the world's media gathered to witness Lt Onoda's official surrender to President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. Still wearing his Army uniform, the now middle-aged soldier bowed and presented his officer's sword. In return, President Marcos issued him with a pardon, not least for the 30 or so people that Lt Onoda had killed between the Japanese Army's withdrawal and his ultimate surrender.

Returning to Japan, Lt Onoda received a hero's welcome in front of several thousand people and was held up as an officer who had demonstrated the highest ideals of the samurai code of honour and loyalty to the Emperor. A year after his return to Japan, however, he had become disillusioned with the profound changes that had taken place there during his absence and particularly the continuing influence of the United States. In 1975 he left Japan and went to Brazil to set up a cattle ranch. As Hiroshi Hiyama explained in Japan Today on 18 January:

"…The country he had left, and the one he had believed he was still fighting for, was in the grip of a militarist government, bent on realising what it thought was its divine right to dominate the region.

"…But the Japan of 1974 was in the throes of a decades-long economic boom and in thrall to Western culture. It was also avowedly pacifist."

Hearing about his death, a government official praised Mr Onoda for his fortitude, and the 91-year-old's very conservative and nationalist thinking was in line with the policies and tone of Japan's current Liberal Democratic Party Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

David McNeill writing in The Independent on 17 January sums it up:

"Onoda found common cause with ultra-conservatives who denied Japan was an aggressor and said it had no choice but to attack the rest of Asia. He bitterly blamed 'left-wing propaganda' for promoting war guilt in Japanese schools."

Mr Onoda's thinking is not one that garners much sympathy today in the likes of China, Korea or other nations, in whole or in part, that suffered under Japanese occupation and aggression. Many Japanese, not of a nationalistic persuasion, also disagree with Mr Onoda's standpoint. It can be excused, or at least understood, in that he was of a generation brought up to believe in a state system – State Shinto – centred on a semi-divine Emperor and outlined by Mr Hiyama above.

The tragedy was that this system ignored any aspect of the Bushido code – the moral code of the samurai - which did not suit its purpose, and worse, deliberately used rape, mass murder, indiscriminate bombing, torture, wonton destruction and germ and chemical warfare, as everyday instruments of war.

Not only had the Japanese ignored the military codes of Britain (for the Imperial Navy) and Germany (Army) - which had significantly influenced its modern, post-Meiji armed forces - but also Japan's own written military codes from the era of the Tokugawa Shoganate, such as the Shocho Kinrei (Rules for Commanders) and Shisotsu Kinrei (Rules for Soldiers).

These rules dictated among other things:

"Regardless of whether it belongs to the enemy, trampling and ruining rice fields is forbidden."

"In enemy territory, it is forbidden to rape women, harm the elderly and children, desecrate graves, torch the homes of commoners, slaughter livestock needlessly, pillage money and rice, cut trees without reason, and steal crops in the field."

Japan's leaders knew that they had "overstepped the mark" by a very wide margin in their military campaigns, and some at their trials or prior to execution, apologised for the atrocities that they had authorised and their subordinates had committed.

It is with these atrocities in mind that Prime Minister Abe has caused much offence in recent weeks after very publicly (if "unofficially") visiting and praying before the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo where many of Japan's war criminals are enshrined.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang, responded to the visit by saying: "What Abe should do now is to admit his mistakes with the Chinese government and people and change his course."

He added: "Abe himself closes the door to dialogue with Chinese leaders. The Chinese people do not welcome him."

Abe has said that he seeks a closer understanding with China and Korea and does not wish to cause these countries hurt or offence. But with actions like this, it should come as no surprise that not much headway is being made.

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