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Japanese Still Resolving Feelings About War

Roger Hsu

Japan during World War II was both aggressor and victim. From its incursions into China in 1931 until 1945, the Japanese military killed several million people. But at the end of the war, Japan became the only country ever to suffer a nuclear attack. VOA Chinese Branch Reporter Roger Hsu looks at the war's complicated legacy in Japan 60 years later. Leta Hong Fincher narrates.

In 1944, Japanese forces lost the momentum they had at the beginning of World War II. Allied forces were advancing across the Pacific. Out of desperation, Japan decided to form a Kamikaze Special Attack Force, using suicide pilots to crash bomb-laden planes into Allied ships.

Senri Nagasue joined one of the kamikaze units when he was 17-years-old.

"If you read the wills of those kamikaze pilots,” he said, “you'll know that on the surface they are talking about valor, glory, dying for their country. But in fact they are only thinking about their families."

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second bomb destroyed Nagasaki.

On August 15, Japanese Emperor Hirohito made his first broadcast to the people, saying the war "did not turn in Japan's favor." 

Ota Kesaji served in a kamikaze unit at the time. He describes his shock on learning that Japan had been defeated. "We had been told all the time that Japan was winning. I was so shocked [at Japan's defeat] that the only thing I could ask was why, why, why?"

Sixty years after the end of World War II, the Japanese are still coming to terms with the consequences of their militaristic past.

Some feel that Japan has atoned for its wartime aggression and no longer needs to apologize to the Asian countries that it invaded. Yuri Murata works for a public relations company in Tokyo.

"I don't feel like apologizing to them,” she said. “The militaristic Japan of World War II and today's Japan are so different that I don't feel responsible for their actions [of the past]."

Animosity is rising between Japan and neighbors China and South Korea, who accuse the Japanese of whitewashing wartime atrocities in their school textbooks. Critics say some of the textbooks play down events such as the "Rape of Nanjing" in 1937, when Japanese soldiers killed up to 300,000 Chinese civilians.

Takei Makoto teaches history at a junior high school in the suburbs of Tokyo.  He describes the textbooks. "The books write about the Nanjing massacre as though there is still a lot of debate about whether it happened. The history textbooks include many myths, which makes it very difficult for students to understand whether something is legend or historical fact."

Mr. Takei says that, unlike Germany, which teaches its children about German war crimes, Japan focuses its education more on the atomic bombs dropped--events in which the Japanese were victims rather than aggressors.

"I have three children, ages 20 to 24. They have started to make Chinese and Korean friends and they now realize they didn't learn enough about that part of history in high school," said Mr. Takei.

Mayuka Nakahira, a freelance journalist in Tokyo, believes much of Japan's rising nationalism is fostered by the government. She points to hundreds of Tokyo teachers who have been reprimanded in the last year for refusing to stand before the Japanese flag at school enrollment and sing the national anthem. The song--called "His Majesty's Reign"--is considered by many Asians to be a symbol of Japanese imperialism.

"This feeling that you'll be ostracized if you don't follow the crowd reminds me of the wartime period when you couldn't voice your opinion."

But World War II veteran Ota Kesaji says today's Japan is nothing like the wartime period. "I believe young Japanese people today would not sacrifice themselves for their country. Their perspective is so different from ours and they do not understand us."

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