VJ Day photos
A photograph of the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

"In vain on this historic day for Japan, I looked for soul-searching, for penitence, for a sign that the lessons of defeat had been taken to heart. The Premier has issued a statement filled with generalities. The press has contented itself with pious phrases...This would have been a good day for the Japanese press to begin telling the people the real and complete story of the war and defeat"

This quote, though written long ago, makes a number of points that many observers might find relevant today; too many in China and Korea, think little if anything has changed. It was written in the diary of an American journalist, Mark Gayn, on the first anniversary of Japan's acceptance of defeat, 15 August 1946, and is part of the conclusion of an essay on the shock effect caused by the atomic bombs for The Pacific Historical Review (November 1998) by Sadao Asada, then Professor of International History at Doshisha University, Kyoto.

A major problem identified in the diary entry was that even by 1946, very many Japanese perceived themselves to be the victims of World War II without any acknowledgement of their Government's and Military's culpability in bringing about the war and their country's part in its own destruction.

Such an end game was predicted and feared by the relatively few Japanese who had lived in or dealt with the West, particularly the United States, during this period and prior to the Imperial Japanese Navy's attack on Pearl Harbor. Not least of those few, the architect of that carrier-borne strike Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had studied at Harvard University and been appointed two times, Naval Attaché to Washington.

For the majority of Japanese though, it was the dropping of atomic bombs on two of their cities that forced them to not only accept that Japan had been defeated but also to surrender, while retaining the belief that they had been defeated "by science" and not the destruction of their Air Force, Navy and substantial parts of the Army.

That Japan's home population was kept for the most part in ignorance of the war, how it was conducted, and the Empire's calamitous military and naval reverses, was offset by the nation's obvious, all too desperate plight in the last year of the war. Combined with the utter destruction wrought upon so many Japanese cities and an especially bad harvest which exacerbated food shortages, all went some way further to explain the sense of victimhood.

Little attempt however, was made to better inform the Japanese after the war why the Army had invaded China and other countries in the first place, let alone how the war had been conducted.

The conviction of a number of military leaders and politicians for war crimes, in the main justly and not simply for losing the war, has apparently not been accepted by many Japanese and more especially among the politically right-wing.

Controversy particularly centres on visits by Diet members to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which honours those who have died fighting for the Emperor (not civilian deaths) including 1,068 convicted war criminals and 14 Class-A war criminals interred in 1978. The previous Emperor (Hirohito) refused to visit the Shrine after 1975 but in recent years a number of politicians have refused to follow the Imperial example.

About 150 members of the Diet, nearly all Liberal Democrats, visited the Shrine during the April Spring Festival in 2014, including some members of the Cabinet. This year, 106 visited on 22 April and three members of the Cabinet the following day.

What makes the Class-A war criminals especially reprehensible to the likes of China and other countries?

After the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the remainder of China in 1937 in an offensive that was designed to conquer the country in three months, these men ordered or sanctioned mass murder, rape and pillage, indiscriminate bombing and shelling in densely crowded Chinese cities and the use of germ warfare weapons carrying the likes of bubonic plague or anthrax, on a scale difficult to comprehend.

Although figures are disputed, from Japan's first incursions after the Mukden (now Shenyang) Incident in September 1931 and especially after the Second Sino-Japanese War (07 July 1937 – 09 September 1945) Chinese military losses were about 1.6 million dead, 2.1 million wounded – the vast majority Kuomintang. Civilian losses from one Western source number a staggering 17 million, second only to the losses suffered by the Soviet Union. This total which will probably include famine victims from Japan's "Three Alls" strategy "kill all, burn all, loot all" and the Chinese Army destroying the river dykes to thwart the Japanese forces and deaths from forced slave labour.

It is understandable that many question the sincerity of apologies given by Japan's politicians when the likes of this are ignored, downplayed or misrepresented and they honour those responsible.

Acknowledgement must be given however to those - and there are many – who recognise the wrongs committed in the past and who are sincere in their apologies. At government level, a breakthrough occurred when Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, made a frank apology to the National Diet on 23 August 1993. He expressed "before all the world...our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions...caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people..." Many others have done so since. (Others in the past used the terms "deep regret", "deep remorse" or (Japan) "deeply reproaches itself").

On 06 August 2015, one of the events with which Hiroshima marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb, was the release of dozens of lanterns to float along the Motoyasu River not far from the epicentre of the explosion which destroyed the city and killed an estimated 70,000 civilians, almost in an instant. Killed too, were 20,000 military personnel, a fact often overlooked, as Hiroshima had been made the HQ of the Second General Army under the command of Field Marshall Shunroku Hata in April 1945 in anticipation of an Allied landing on the home islands.

Covering the proceedings in Hiroshima on 06 August, Asahi Shimbun reported that the Mayor of the city Kazumi Matsui, referred to nuclear weapons as the "ultimate inhumanity" and called on the nations of the world to create a security structure that "does not rely on military force".

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the assembled that:

"We will make further efforts toward realization of a world without nuclear weapons..." and promised to submit a draft resolution at the United Nations this autumn for their abolition.

Attending the ceremonies in Hiroshima were the Ambassadors of the United States, France, Britain and Russia – but not China or Korea.

There was another ceremony on 09 August in Nagasaki on the 70th anniversary of its large scale destruction by the second atomic bomb. Never really getting the recognition that Hiroshima does, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was made from plutonium and much more powerful, obliterating a third of the city's area, due to its hilly terrain, and killing 40,000 instantly.

In 1992 during a visit to China, Emperor Akihito admitted the suffering which his country had caused and that he felt deep grief for all those affected. On 15 August just past, the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, the Emperor went much further in front of an audience at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, when he expressed his "deep remorse" for Japan's wartime aggression.

Apology being a very important matter in the cultures of the Far East, China, through its official news agency, Xinhua, felt that he should have gone further: "Who should apologise for the crime of Japan's 'war of aggression'?, ran the headline and the article stated that the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) had never formally and clearly done so.

A couple of days later this had elicited a protest to the Chinese Government from Japan's Foreign Ministry demanding to know whether this was official policy to which their Chinese counterparts effectively said that they could not comment on a press article.


It is very obvious what many in China would like – an official and clear apology from the Emperor of Japan as 'Head of State' and not from politicians who, of late, appear to qualify the apology. Nothing of course is so simple, as I'm sure the Chinese Foreign Ministry will be fully aware, for the Emperor is not the Head of State or Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as our Queen or the President of the United States is.

Since Japan's defeat in World War II, constitutionally the Emperor is a "Symbol of the state and unity of the people of Japan" and "...Sovereignty resides with the people..." and so as a matter of protocol, whatever he might say privately, he cannot publicly.

Never mind, August is nearly over; early September will see the 70th anniversary of the official ratification of Japan's surrender, although Prime Minister Abe on 24 August declined Beijing's invite to attend its Victory Day Parade on 03 September. Maybe a missed opportunity? But that's politics!