During World War II, in one of the most miserable and darkest periods in human history, Nazi Germany committed the Holocaust and murdered over 6 million Jews in Europe, including 1.5 million children.
I recently accompanied Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on a visit to Yad Vashem, and laid a wreath at a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance.
The iron-clad evidence of Nazi Germany’s persecution and Holocaust of Jews on display at Yad Vashem leaves all visitors deeply shocked and bitter. People of high integrity and goodness will vow that history shall never repeat itself! The Chinese people did their utmost during World War II to help thousands of Jewish refugees escape from the Holocaust and find shelter in China. The people empathized with the suffering and misery of the Jews, due to their experience with the Japanese, who slaughtered the Chinese just as the Nazis did to the Jewish people. During the Japanese invasion of China in World War II, millions of Chinese died. After the December 1937 occupation of Nanjing, China’s capital at the time, the Japanese invaders massacred 300,000 innocent civilians and POWs, an event which became known to the world as the Nanjing Massacre.
After the war ended, the international community held historic trials against fascism and militarism. The famous Nuremberg Trials in Europe brought 22 Class-A war criminals such as Hermann Wilhelm Goring from Germany to trial, and sent 10 of them to the gallows. The famous Tokyo Trials in Asia involved 28 Japanese Class-A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo, and sent seven of them to the gallows.
After World War II, Germans faced up to history squarely, and made sincere apologies to the Jewish people and Israel.
According to the Luxembourg Agreement signed in 1952 between West Germany and the State of Israel, West Germany paid Israel 3 billion German marks in war reparations. Konrad Adenauer, then chancellor of West Germany, and then-Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion held a historic meeting in New York in March 1960. Adenauer reiterated Germany’s special historical responsibility toward Israel, and Ben-Gurion announced to the world that “the Germany of today is not the Germany of yesterday,” opening a new chapter in relations between the two countries.
Some Israeli friends told me that as Germany had purged itself of Nazism and reflected on the lessons of history, enacting laws forbidding anyone to overturn the verdict on Nazi crimes, the Nazi criminals who had committed them had been firmly nailed to the eternal pillory. Therefore, they said, Germany had finally won the forgiveness and respect of all countries, including Israel.
However, Class-A war criminals convicted in the Tokyo Trials were openly honored in Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, one of the most important sites for state worship in Japan. Among these war criminals were Hideki Tojo, the “Hitler of Asia,” the Japanese prime minister who started the Pacific War during World War II; commander Iwane Matsui, who ordered the Japanese invasion force to commit Nanjing Massacre; Japanese naval officer Osami Nagano, who ordered the attack on the US’s Pearl Harbor; Hyotaro Kimura, the “Butcher of Burma,” who committed the Yangon Massacre; and Akira Muto, who committed the Manila Massacre.
All of these Asian war criminals enjoyed not only the worship of ordinary Japanese at the shrine, but also visits and homage from Japanese National Diet members, government ministers, even prime ministers. Therefore, after the recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, not only China and Korea but also the secretary-general of UN, the US, EU, Russia and some Southeast Asian governments condemned Abe’s behavior.
The Chinese people don’t want to stick to historical issues, and we also believe in tolerance. Despite the fact that the war of aggression against China waged by Japanese militarism inflicted as many as 35 million casualties and $600 billion in direct and indirect losses to China, right after the end of World War II, Chinese leaders stressed that the Chinese people should render good for evil toward the Japanese people.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese leaders advocated treating on its merits each case when it comes to the Japanese people and Japanese militarism, and promoted reconciliation between the Chinese people and the Japanese people.
Long before the signing of a peace treaty between China and Japan, China offered leniency to Japanese war prisoners in China, assisted the Japanese in China in returning to their home country for family reunions, and invited a large number of Japanese youths to visit China. When China and Japan normalized their diplomatic ties in 1972, the Chinese leadership made the important decision not to seek war reparations from Japan.
Paying homage at Yasukuni Shrine is not just a purely cultural issue relating to the remembrance of the dead. Each nation has its particular culture of paying homage. Class-A war criminals that started a war of aggression are substantially different from ordinary Japanese soldiers. Ordinary soldiers who died in combat are victims of Japan’s militaristic policy, even if they are not totally innocent.
Worshiping the Class-A war criminals and ordinary soldiers together at the Yasukuni Shrine and calling it “Japanese culture” is not only irresponsible to ordinary soldiers, but also irresponsible to Japanese culture. If we connect the Japanese prime minister’s worship with Japanese domestic politics, we can see the severity of this issue.
In the past year, some Japanese politicians even engaged in wild arguments such as, “Whether Japan is considered to have committed an invasion during World War II depends on the perspective you take,” and that it was necessary for the Japanese army to conscript “comfort women” by force in order to maintain military discipline. The Japanese government is also trying to break through the pacifist constitution imposed by the international community, which set restrictions on Japan’s rights to start war abroad and manufacture weapons, its defense spending, etc.
Thus Japan has denied its history of military aggression on one hand, and on the other hand has sought the right to use force abroad, substantially increase its annual military expenditures and establish its national security council to centralize state power under its prime minister. All of the above show that Japan is in danger of once again turning toward militarism. If the international community just sits and watches, Japan’s militaristic history may repeat itself.
Therefore, worshiping at Yasukuni Shrine is not merely a matter of Japanese culture, nor even a domestic Japanese matter; it involves important issues such as which path Japan would like to take and whether peace in Asia and the world at large can be maintained.
When Nazi Germany planned the Holocaust, some far-sighted people in the international community noticed this dangerous trend at once and warned the world powers, but little attention was paid and almost no actions taken.
Therefore, when we saw the Japanese prime minister blatantly pay homage at the shrine where Class-A war criminals are worshiped, we felt the strong desire for peace from all those innocent lives lost in the Holocaust. We cannot allow the future to retestify to the perilous results of our indifference and apathy.
Both the Jewish and Chinese peoples underwent that period of extreme hardship, and have natural hatred toward Nazism and Fascism. Both Jerusalem and Nanjing have their own museums, such as Yad Vashem and the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre. The aim of these memorials was not to call for revenge, but for peace – and to prevent our peoples from repeating history.
The writer is the Chinese ambassador to Israel.