From Pearl Harbor To Iraq

Iraqi people stand behind a Japanese armored vehicle, in Samawah, southern Iraq, Friday, Jan. 23, 2004. AP

This Letter From Asia comes from Tokyo.

America is debating a war of choice it started in Iraq. If history is any guide, the debate will last long after the war is over. History, in this case, being the Japanese who attacked America on December 7, 1941 – their war of choice.

It seems so long ago…more than 60 years…from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the grueling war in the Pacific until 1945 when the Japanese surrendered.

And then came something rare in human history…a chastised Japan adopted a pacifist constitution, basically renouncing force as a way of settling its issues. For decades, this was a point of pride with the Japanese.

Now, fast forward to our decade. Japan has a military called the self-defense force, which is supposed to be there only to repel invading enemies. Except that its role is changing.

Japan is so eager to be America's ally that it sent troops to Iraq to join the U.S. coalition …the first time since World War II that Japanese troops served in a war zone on foreign soil. The Japanese assured the world that this was not the beginning of a return to its bad old days.

You could pardon other Asians for thinking this…what with the continued visit of the Japan's prime minister to that symbol of war…the Yasakuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. It is said that the souls of all those who died for the emperor are enshrined here… including Japanese convicted of war crimes by the Allies.

China, Korea and the Philippines…all once occupied by Japan…do not see this as honoring the past. They see it as suggesting the return of the ruthless militarism that Japan used to brutally rule the countries it occupied. There is even talk in Japan of changing the Japanese constitution…getting rid of its pacifist leanings.

It's hurting Japan…especially with the Chinese who saw hundreds of thousands killed by the Japanese in World War II…and whose top leaders are currently snubbing Japan's prime minister in protest for the visits to the shrine. China is a major market for Japan, and yet the Japanese are risking it to embrace the heritage of a blood-soaked past.

America is partly to blame here. Our leaders have pressured Japan to build a military that can supplement ours in Asia, and can go to places like Iraq. We call it, having the Japanese pull more of their own weight in the world. The rest of Asia see it as a return to a time of conquest and killing. They want no part of it, and frankly, they wonder why the U.S. – of all countries – does.

By Barry Petersen
  • Bob Bicknell

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