The untold story of Japan’s war compensation record

Although it is well known that the Japanese media extensively censor themselves, foreign correspondents in Tokyo are often almost as hesitant to tell the whole truth. Here is the full story on one important aspect of Japanese policy that has long been the subject of particularly pervasive self-censorship both inside and outside Japan.  [Article as published in the American Prospect, May 3 2006.]

TOKYO. In all the public bickering recently between Japan and China, one fact has had remarkably little attention: Japan’s continuing refusal to pay compensation to victims of its militarist-era brutality.

Ever since Japan surrendered in August 1945, one of the Japanese government’s key policy objectives has been to slough off all such compensation claims. Japanese officials seem never to have discussed their argument against compensation publicly, but it would appear to amount to no more than the sotto voce invocation of the old saw that all’s fair in love and war. Any defense lawyer taking Japan’s case would no doubt argue that there was a distinction in principle between Japan’s atrocities and the Germans’ program of mass extermination of the Jews and other minorities. (For the most part Japan’s atrocities were committed in the general pursuit of war, though this defense can hardly do much to excuse, for instance, the massacre at Nanking in 1937 or the truly gruesome activities of Unit 731, Japan’s China-based biological warfare research institute.)

As best can be determined, Japan’s compensation payments both to war victims and their heirs have totaled a mere $1 billion. This contrasts remarkably with Germany’s record. Already by the early-1990s Germany’s payments to victims and their heirs had exceeded $70 billion. The contrast is all the more remarkable for the fact that Imperial Japan’s victims outnumbered those of the Nazis by at least three to one.

The truth is that most of Japan’s victims, including millions in China, have not received a penny. And in the small minority of cases in which compensation has been paid, the sums have been laughable. In the case of thousands of American servicemen who were interned in Japanese prisoner of war camps, for instance, payments have ranged between $1 and $2.50 for each day they were held. (For someone who was held for eighteen months — which was probably about typical — the compensation might have amounted to $600 to $1,000.) Admittedly most payments were made within a few years of the end of the war, and thus their purchasing power was considerably greater than it seems today. But even at the time, the compensation rates were only a small fraction of what, say, insurance companies in the United States or Britain would have paid to victims of industrial accidents. Yet by all accounts the pain and suffering experienced in Japan’s prison camps were at least as serious as that suffered by a typical industrial accident victim.

Is this a fair comparison? There are, of course, few precedents in international law to guide us on these issues. What can be said is that there have long been unequivocal standards for treating prisoners of war and, in the case of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, Japan fell brutally short of such standards. That life in Japan’s prison camps was no picnic is attested to by former Veterans Administration official Charles A. Stenger, who in a study in the 1970s calculated that more than 40 percent of the 27,465 American servicemen imprisoned by Japan died in detention. The equivalent figure for German prison camps was 1 percent.

Why has there not been more pressure on Tokyo to do the right thing by countless innocent victims? And why has Japan’s niggardliness received so little attention in the West? Few actors emerge from this story with much glory. Not the leaders of the American occupation of post-war Japan. Not the American press. And not even the governments of the various East Asian nations whose citizens suffered disproportionately under Imperial Japan.

Japan’s first gambit was to plead poverty. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, this had the merit of verisimilitude. Deprived of vital raw materials previously sourced from Japan’s overseas empire, Japanese industry slumped in the late 1940s and Japanese per-capita income fell below that of some sub-Saharan African nations. But anyone who took Japan’s then straitened circumstances as indicative of its future prospects was lacking in foresight. Before World War II, after all, Japan had ranked well up among the world’s richer nations. Its remarkable manufacturing prowess was already becoming apparent, albeit mainly in armaments. The Mitsubishi Zero, for instance, was an engineering marvel which at the time of its launch in 1940 was the most sophisticated fighter plane in the world.

Yet by the late 1940s, Japanese leaders had convinced American officials that Japan would never again be an advanced economy. The common wisdom of the time was that Japan’s export efforts would be focused on the Third World markets and would consist mainly of supplying cheap “knickknacks” — a word used in at least one official
American economic analysis of the time.

It was in this atmosphere that an American mission visited Japan in 1948 to guide Washington on the reparations question. The so-called Draper-Johnson mission more or less absolved Japan of all liabilities.There were allegations at the time that some of the mission’s members had serious conflicts of interest because they represented American financial organizations which had extensive pre-war dealings with the Japan’s so-called zaibatsus, which were the industrial groupings that dominated the Japanese economy in the first half of the twentieth century. Not the least of the conflicts appears to have concerned Army Undersecretary William H. Draper, Jr., who was the mission’s effective leader. Dillon, Read & Company, the investment banking firm where Draper had worked before the war and where he returned after the war, received a lucrative Japanese underwriting deal soon after the mission reported.

In the words of one observer, it was as if the foxes had been sent to inventory the henhouse.

The Draper-Johnson mission’s key recommendations were incorporated into the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951. Signed by the United States, Japan, and more than 40 other nations, this document formally settled all issues arising out of the war. It was, however, a case of Hamlet without the prince. For one key nation was not a signatory — China, which of course was home to by far the largest group of potential claimants for compensation. When China began opening up in the 1970s, one of Tokyo’s first moves was to press Zhou Enlai, China’s Japan-educated foreign minister, to renounce the Chinese people’s claims to compensation. For reasons that have never been made clear, he duly did so. His renunciation was endorsed by the reformist regime of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s but in this case there was a quid pro quo: Japan promised to favor China in its foreign-aid program.

While this did essentially nothing for the victims, it represented a win-win for both the Chinese and Japanese governments. Chinese officials got to designate the projects on which Japan’s money would be spent. Meanwhile for Tokyo, the cost of the aid program  — a cumulative total of about $30 billion — was a mere bagatelle compared
to what would have been payable had Japan been forced to negotiate with millions of individual Chinese claimants in the world’s courts. The aid program, moreover, was a source of countless lucrative contracts for major Japanese manufacturers which supply most of the bulldozers, electricity generating sets, and countless other types of capital equipment used in Japan’s China aid program).

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole story is how it has been played in the English-language press. The tone has been set by the Japan Times, a Tokyo-based English-language newspaper long regarded as a semi-official mouthpiece of the Japanese Foreign Ministry. The Japan Times has generally avoided the subject of compensation and instead has assiduously encouraged Westerners to see the war legacy story as merely a question of whether Japan has apologized sincerely enough. It has repeatedly led the foreign press in bouts of parsing Japan’s words of apology. Its approach has been echoed by the Japanese establishment’s many surrogates and stooges in the Tokyo foreign community, and foreign correspondents seem to buy into the gambit, getting too engrossed in semantics to ask about compensation.

The semantics-only approach remained the status quo until 1997, when Iris Chang published a best-selling account of the Nanking massacre. The book’s comments on the compensation issue finally precipitated what Tokyo had long feared: a flood of class-action lawsuits in American courts. Her role was catalytic: the main effect of her book was to bring to the attention of a younger generation of class action lawyers that Japan had never compensated most WWII victims.

The lawyers arrived too late, however: most would-be claimants were already dead, and much evidence had disappeared. Moreover, much of what evidence does exist is held either by the Japanese government or by Japanese corporations, which have allegedly refused to release it. As Tokyo had hoped, justice delayed proved to be justice denied. Still, thereafter the curfew on compensation talk was moot, and even the most timid members of the Tokyo press community came out on the issue. Some indeed even went so far as to discuss the previously ultra-taboo issue of the German/Japanese dichotomy on compensation.

Virtually every correspondent who has ever covered Tokyo bears some responsibility for the press’s monumental blind spot. But few have been guilty of a greater lapse than the Anglo-Dutch writer Ian Buruma. In 1994 Buruma, a former reporter for the Japan Times, published Wages of Guilt, a book contrasting Japanese and German war legacies. Although the jacket promised “devastating truths,” one devastating truth went unrecorded: the startling dichotomy in the two nations’ compensation records.

Questioned at a public meeting in Tokyo some years ago, Buruma replied that the book had mentioned the compensation issue. Buruma pointed to a single sentence referring to the fact that some victims of one little-known atrocity by the Japanese had never been compensated. He offered no explanation for the book’s silence on the differing compensation policies of Japan and Germany.

(Anyone familiar with Buruma’s theme will notice other lacunae in Wages of Guilt. In particular the book failed to follow up on the subsequent careers of some of Japan’s more notorious war criminals, particularly those in Unit 731, Japan’s biological warfare research institute. Not only did the United States drop war crimes charges against the unit’s personnel in return for access to Unit 731’s secrets, but these personnel were never punished. Quite the contrary, many of the doctors who conducted Unit 731’s most diabolic experiments went on to extraordinarily successful careers in post-war Japanese medicine. One became president of the Japan’s national medical association in the late 1940s right under the nose of the American occupation.)

For Americans, perhaps the most galling aspect of the Japanese failures on reparations is the contrast between the tight-fistedness toward war victims displayed by the Japanese government and the generosity with which the U.S. government treated postwar Japan. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the United States spent $2 billion on aid to Japan in the first six years after the war. This is double my estimate of Japan’s total compensation payments to war victims (this estimate, which I published in a book in 1995, came from Leon Hollerman, an economist who served in the U.S. occupation of Japan in the late 1940s).

To say the least, the compensation story casts the recent spats between Tokyo and Beijing in a different light. It is hard to say which side is more cynical. The only reason Japanese voters are not more outraged by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s baiting of Beijing is that they know so little of the depth of the Chinese people’s grievances. The Japanese press, after all, has printed only a very selective account of the past. By the same token, those in the Beijing leadership who have sought to whip up popular anger against Tokyo are the same people who have systematically done Tokyo’s bidding by blocking Chinese citizens from suing the Japanese government in American courts. If there were more frankness in Japan, Koizumi would see less profit in posturing at the Yasukuni Shrine. By the same token, if China had a free press, the Chinese people would see Beijing’s denunciations of his visits for the cant they are.

Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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