ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2001-0904-SCC

Recovering Japan's Wartime Past - and Ours

Steven C. Clemons

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch: Steven C. Clemons

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Steven C. Clemons. This article originally appeared in the New York Times, September 4, 2001.sjk]

Recovering Japan's Wartime Past - and Ours

by Steven C. Clemons

WASHINGTON -- Celebrations this Saturday of the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Treaty of Peace, which established the postwar relationship between Japan and the world, will focus on Japan's emergence as a pacifist market economy under the tutelage of its conqueror and later ally, the United States. Little attention will be paid to questions of historical memory or of liability for Japan's behavior during the war. The 1951 treaty, largely through the efforts of America's principal negotiator, John Foster Dulles, sought to eliminate any possibility of war reparations. This undoubtedly cemented Japan's alliance with the United States and helped its economic rebirth. But Dulles's and Japan's strategy also fostered a deliberate forgetfulness whose consequences haunt us today.

Dulles had been a United States counsellor at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, with special responsibility for reparations. He had opposed, without much success, the heavy penalties imposed by the Allies on Germany. These payments were widely seen as responsible for the later collapse of Germany's economy and, if obliquely, for the rise of Nazism. After World War II, Dulles feared that heavy reparations burdens would similarly cripple Japan, make it vulnerable to Communist domination and prevent it from rebuilding. It was crucial to Dulles that Japan not face claims arising from its wartime conduct. The San Francisco Treaty has been used to this day, by Japan and America, as a shield against any such claims.

Nonetheless, when he had to, Dulles allowed an exception, one that has remained largely hidden. The signatories to the San Francisco Treaty waived "all reparations claims of the Allied Powers, other claims of the Allied Powers and their nationals arising out of any actions taken by Japan and its nationals in the course of the prosecution of the War." But recently declassified documents show that Dulles, in negotiating this clause, also negotiated a way out of it.

Dulles had persuaded most of the Allied powers to accept the treaty. One major nation that refused to sign was Korea, because of its enmity against Japan for colonizing the Korean Peninsula. India, China and the Soviet Union also declined to sign.

For a brief while it appeared that the Netherlands would do likewise. Only days before the treaty was to be signed, the Dutch government threatened to walk out of the convention because it feared that the treaty "expropriated the private claims of its individuals" to pursue war-related compensation from Japanese private interests. Tens of thousands of Dutch civilians in the East Indies had lost their property to Japanese companies, which had followed Japan's armies to the Indies. They wanted compensation, and they had political power in Holland.

European opinion mattered to Dulles, who feared that a Dutch exodus might lead the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand to drop out as well. On the day before and the morning of the signing ceremony, Dulles orchestrated a confidential exchange of letters between the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands, Dirk Stikker, and Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida of Japan. Yoshida pledged that "the Government of Japan does not consider that the Government of the Netherlands by signing the Treaty has itself expropriated the private claims of its nationals so that, as a consequence thereof, after the Treaty comes into force these claims would be non-existent."

Article 26 of the treaty states that, "should Japan make a peace settlement or war claims settlement with any State granting that State greater advantages than those provided by the present Treaty, those same advantages shall be extended to the parties to the present Treaty." This is why the letters had to be confidential: they preserved the rights of some Allied private citizens, in this case Dutch citizens, to pursue reparations.

Such an agreement, if publicized, could have opened the way for other claims -- reparations was a huge and emotional issue after the war. These letters were not declassified until April 2000, by which time most potential claimants were probably dead.

In 1956, the Dutch did successfully pursue a claim against Japan on behalf of private citizens. Japan paid $10 million as a way of "expressing sympathy and regret." Japan had been slow about making its deal with the Netherlands, and the United States had to remind the Japanese that, as a declassified State Department document puts it, the United States had "exerted considerable pressure on the Netherlands representatives with a view to their signing the Peace Treaty," and "one of the arrangements was assurance that the terms of the Yoshida-Stikker letters would be honored."

A year before, the British noted two other instances in which governments had made deals with Japan for reparations: a settlement with Burma that provided reparations, services and investments amounting, over 10 years, to $250 million; and an agreement with Switzerland that provided "compensation for maltreatment, personal injury and loss arising from acts illegal under the rules of war."

The British Foreign Ministry elected not to take any action on behalf of British nationals -- and chose not to publicize the information. The United States concurred, with one official commenting, "Further pressure would be likely to cause the maximum of resentment for the minimum of advantage." Nonetheless, the Stikker- Yoshida letters and the Burmese and Swiss agreements could all be used to make Japan, under Article 26 of the San Francisco Treaty, offer similar terms to the treaty's 47 signatories.

The price Japan might have paid, in 1951 or later, as atonement for its crimes would, presumably, have been high. Perhaps Dulles's public policy was best. But it may also be that Japan, and even the United States, are paying a different sort of price for the amnesia and secrecy that both countries chose after the war. An American group of former prisoners of war, for example, has pledged to protest the conferences and commemorative galas. These veterans are pursuing financial relief for having been enslaved in wartime by Japanese corporations, notably Mitsui and Mitsubishi. The P.O.W.'s have already lost one case in California. The judge, Vaughn Walker, decided that because of the success of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and of Japan in becoming a strong ally and partner of the United States, the waiver of individual rights to pursue private parties in Japan was justified. This has been the argument in the dozens of suits brought in Japan and a smaller number of cases in American courts. And the argument has so far prevailed.

Judge Walker did recognize that Japan's reparations deals with some countries might present the opportunity for the signatory nations of 1951 to bring their own claims, as provided for in Article 26 of the treaty. However, "the question of enforcing Article 26," he wrote, is "for the United States, not the plaintiffs, to decide."

The failure to support war claims is one of the reasons Japan is still struggling with other nations over its history. The Germans ? at least, West Germans -- have engaged in five decades of public debate about Hitler and the Holocaust. And Germany and other European countries have accepted the need, for their governments or their corporations, to pay reparations for crimes very similar to those committed by Japan and Japanese companies in the same period.

The Japanese, however, have not witnessed the court cases and public debates that would help shape a shared understanding of history among Japanese and their neighbors. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit last month to the Yasukuni shrine -- which honors the souls of Japan's war dead, including the souls of war criminals -- and the relentless efforts of some Japanese textbook writers to minimize Japan's wartime aggression against Korea and China have further aggravated regional tension over Japan's official history. Because Japan is so ill at ease with debate about its past, other nations understandably distrust a more powerful Japan.

What we know only today is that the State Department arranged a deal that arguably allows Americans and others to pursue personal claims against Japan or Japanese firms -- but tried to keep the agreement quiet. The State Department even filed briefs in the California court against the former American prisoners of war. Of course, it was the State Department that once advanced the claims of Dutch citizens.

Japan clearly deserves criticism for its inability to debate its past openly. However, the United States, as evidenced by the emerging controversy about the terms of the San Francisco Treaty, has also played a role in Japan's historical amnesia. By withholding documents on American foreign policy, the United States has contributed to a failure of memory that will continue to have consequences for all of us.

Steven C. Clemons is executive vice president of the New America Foundation.

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