A letter from Normandy to Abe: Lessons for Japan from WWII

On Monday, Japan marked the 71st anniversary of its surrender in World War II. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe carefully avoided mention of Japan's wartime aggression overseas and any mention of remorse. The writer urges Mr Abe to visit Normandy and learn from Europe's way of getting past its bloody history.

Dear Prime Minister,

I spent a few days with my grandchildren visiting the beaches in Normandy in France that witnessed the landings of D-Day and the cities and towns that were ravaged by the fighting; these represent the first crucial steps to eventually bringing an end to World War II in Europe.

We also visited the monuments and especially the cemeteries that bring forth a stark reminder of the deaths of the thousands of young men who perished so that subsequent generations might live.

Victory in Europe (VE) also allowed Allied troops to go to the assistance of China, which had held the Asian fort against the onslaught of Nazi Germany's erstwhile ally, Japan, for the long, excruciatingly bloody, years of the Pacific War.

Thus, VE Day on May 8, 1945, after still more immense bloodshed, ultimately led to Victory over Japan (VJ) Day on Sept 2. Had there not been VE Day, VJ Day may have been much more distant, or may indeed have not occurred.

I do not know if you have visited these sites in Normandy, but I would strongly urge you to do so. Among the many thoughts that come to mind is how terrible it would have been for us, the post-World War II generations (I was born three days before VJ Day), had these young men not given their lives.

Imagine, Prime Minister, the truly horrific nightmare of a world dominated by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militarist Japan - which would probably have found some arrangement with Stalinist Russia - as opposed to the one in which you and I, and our children, were most fortunate to live. With VE and VJ Days, it was not just the Allies that won; the whole world won, including Germany, Italy and Japan.

Prime Minister, surely had Japan not lost the war and your grandfather - Nobusuke Kishi - and his militarist government dominated by fundamentalist "Japanist" ideology survived, the Japanese people would not have experienced the tremendous benefits that peace, prosperity and democracy have brought since 1945.

Prime Minister, surely had Japan not lost the war and your grandfather - Nobusuke Kishi - and his militarist government dominated by fundamentalist "Japanist" ideology survived, the Japanese people would not have experienced the tremendous benefits that peace, prosperity and democracy have brought since 1945.

The victory ended not only the dictatorial rule of the Axis countries, but also eliminated Germany's Gestapo and Japan's Kempeitai, their respective secret police forces, well known for their arbitrary arrests and torture techniques.

That the victories were not simply for the winners of the war, as had arguably been the case with the end of World War I, but also for the "losers", is a proposition that no responsible German, whether in business, in politics, in the civil service, in academia, or in the media would contest.

Visitors to the cemeteries in Normandy include not only Americans, Canadians, Britons, Belgians, Dutch, French and Danes, but also Germans and Italians. The German and Japanese governments in the 1930s, and until their defeats, caused immense suffering to the people of the countries they occupied as well as to their own populations.

When you visit the cemeteries (which, as I say, if you have not yet, I hope you will) you cannot help but be truly moved upon looking at the endless rows of tombs on which you read the names of the fallen heroes - though some were never recognised, and hence remain anonymous - and their ages, most of whom were in their late teens and very early 20s when they fell.

At least there is the consolation that they did not die in vain. The situation in Europe at the moment is far from ideal; there are many things to worry about regarding the Europe that my grandchildren will inherit. War in Europe, however, is not one of them.

PACIFIST EUROPE, TURBULENT ASIA

There are many reasons for this. A major one is the unqualified recognition by Germans of their war guilt and of the abysmal evil of the Nazi regime. In contrast to the Yasukuni Shrine, there is no Nazi sanctuary that German political leaders visit for reasons of nostalgia and to worship their war criminals.

As a Frenchman, whose father spent time in a German prisoner of war camp, from which he fortunately escaped, I feel no suspicion, apprehension or wanting revenge towards Germans.

For my children (born in the 1970s) and grandchildren, Germans are fellow Europeans and human beings, not hated erstwhile enemies not to be trusted.

This pacific serenity in Europe stands in stark contrast with the turbulent situation in Asia. Again, there are, of course, many reasons for this turbulence. In good part, however, it arises from the stark contrast in the behaviour and attitudes of some Japanese political and thought leaders compared with their German counterparts. (In that context, if you have not already done so, I strongly recommend you read the book by Mr Ian Buruma, The Wages Of Guilt: Memories Of War In Germany And Japan. It was written more than 20 years ago, but still rings true today.)

The Yasukuni Shrine, which harbours the spirits of, among others, over a thousand war criminals, including 14 Class A war criminals, stands out as a symbol of Japanese Pacific War ideological and historical defiance.

It was while I was in Normandy, deep in thought over the history and meaning of the end of World War II and its legacies in Europe and Asia, that I learnt of the appointment of Ms Tomomi Inada as your Minister of Defence.

Ms Inada has been a regular visitor to Yasukuni; she has been ambivalent over Japan's war crimes and whether Japan invaded China. Such a scenario would be completely unthinkable for a defence minister - or indeed any minister - in Germany.

Nazi Germany and militarist Japan were close allies in the 1930s and 40s. For many this was not simply an alliance of convenience on their respective western and eastern fronts, but an ideological alliance.

As you must know, your grandfather, Kishi, who, among other official posts, served as Minister for Munitions in the government (1941-44) of Hideki Tojo , was a follower of the Japanese fascist author Ikki Kita and, from 1933 onwards, frequently praised Nazi Germany as a model for Japan in his speeches. The Ministry of Munitions was responsible for forcing thousands of Koreans and Chinese into slave labour in Japanese mines and factories.

In her remarks quoted in the media, Ms Inada stated that alleged war crimes by Japan were matters of assessment and not objective facts.

Prime Minister, we know that while there may be some discrepancies in respect to, for example, the number actually killed in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, or the number of Chinese and Korean slave labourers in Japanese factories and mines, or the number of women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military in Korea, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma, that they existed are objective facts and not matters of interpretation.

I truly regret having to address these painful subjects in this open letter, including the complicity of your grandfather in the carnage and havoc that Japan wreaked in the 1930s and 40s.

It is absolutely impossible to imagine that I would need to have such a correspondence with a German chancellor or an Italian prime minister. The fact that such a correspondence is impossible to imagine is why it is possible to imagine that, whatever happens, peace will reign in Europe.

Only when Japan comes squarely to recognise its past guilt, only when political leaders stop visiting Yasukuni, only when they stop equivocating over the crimes committed during the Pacific War, can the same be imagined in Asia.

In the meantime, perhaps you, as well as Ms Inada and others nostalgic for Japan's militarist and imperialist past, might visit the cemeteries and monuments on the beaches of Normandy and reflect.

Indeed, Japanese leaders visiting the cemeteries in Normandy in lieu of Yasukuni could well be a symbolically constructive step to eventual peace in Asia.

If Japan and the Asia-Pacific cannot come to peaceful terms in respect to the past, peace for the future will remain extremely fragile.

  • Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore; and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'A letter from Normandy to Abe: Lessons for Japan from WWII'. Print Edition | Subscribe