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Historiography of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan

Last modified: 3 June 2008
Takashi Yoshida

June 2008

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Takashi Yoshida, Historiography of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 3 June 2008, accessed 2 March 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Historiography-of-the-Asia-Pacific-War-in-Japan, ISSN 1961-9898

 III. Reconciliation vs. Revisionism (1989- Present)

Hirohito’s illness and his eventual death in 1989 inspired many Japanese to reconsider Hirothito’s responsibility for the war and the entire history of the Asia-Pacific conflict. In December 1989, Motoshima Hitoshi, mayor of Nagasaki, expressed his personal view that the emperor was responsible for the war and that a vast number of human lives would have been saved if he had decided to surrender earlier. [43] An extreme right-wing activist later tried to assassinate Motoshima because of his comments, but violence did not succeed in changing the mayor’s opinion. More than 380,000 people nationwide signed a declaration in support of Motoshima’s view. [44] Meiji Gakuin University, a private Protestant university in Tokyo, organized a series of public lectures on the history of the war, including one which addressed Hirohito’s war responsibility. Other academic institutions presented similar programs. [45]

Both the social and political context of the early- and mid- 1990s favored those who advocated historical reconciliation between Japan and its neighbors. In December 1991, three Korean women who had been forced into sexual servitude during the war filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. They demanded an apology and compensation. Kim Hak-sun, one of the plaintiffs, urged young Koreans and Japanese to educate themselves about what Imperial Japan had done to women. Her words moved Yoshimi Yoshiaki to commence his now-influential research on Japan’s military sexual slavery. [46] In January 1992, a document that he discovered led the Japanese government to officially acknowledge its involvement in establishing brothels in Japan and abroad. [47] Yoshimi was not unique. The coming out of the so-called “comfort women” inspired many Japanese to study the topic and to conduct archival research on this issue. Yoshimi is a founding member of the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility, founded in 1993, which publishes a quarterly journal, Study of War Responsibility Quarterly (Kikan sensō sekinin kenkyū). Its first issue in fall 1993 focused solely on the Japanese military’s “comfort women”. The journal reprinted some sixty newly discovered documents on the women forced into sexual slavery. [48] As of August 2007, the Center had published fifty-six issues dealing not only with ”comfort women”, but also with such topics as the Nanjing Massacre, forced labor, and compensation lawsuits filed by the victims of Japanese atrocities and militarism.

In the 1990s, survivors of Japan’s wartime atrocities and misdeeds filed lawsuits one after another. Japanese lawyers helped the plaintiffs, not only offering their services pro bono, but also occasionally paying the travel costs of researchers seeking evidence in China and South Korea. These lawyers have also hosted victims from other countries so that they can testify before the Japanese courts. From 1990 until 1999, at least fifty-nine cases were filed that demanded compensation from the Japanese government and companies. [49] One of the groups of lawyers seeking justice for war victims is the Counsel in the Case for Awarding Compensation to Chinese War Victims (Chūgokujin sensō higai baishō seikyū jiken bengodan). Founded in 1995, the Counsel comprises 250 lawyers. Between 1995 and 2006, cases argued by the Counsel have resulted in a total of twenty-one judgments. Whereas four cases have led to judgments for the plaintiffs, the others have held for the government and the various corporate defendants, citing either the statute of limitations or peace treaties that have been held to preempt the plaintiffs’ compensation claims. Nevertheless, in all cases, the courts acknowledged the atrocities and misdeeds committed by the Japanese government and companies and expressed sympathy for the psychological and physical pain that the survivors endured. [50]

Some Japanese companies chose to settle the claims out of court. In September 1997, Nippon Steel Corporation agreed to pay 20,050,000 yen (approximately $173,950) to the eleven bereaved families in South Korea and 10,000,000 won (approximately $10,640) for a commemoration ceremony in South Korea. [51] In 1999, another steel maker, NKK Corporation, agreed to pay 4,100,000 yen (approximately $35,500) to Kim Kyung Suk, who was beaten after being forcibly taken to Japan. [52] In 2000, both Fujikoshi, a bearing manufacturer, and Kajima Corporation, the largest general contractor in Japan, reached settlements with plaintiffs. Fujikoshi agreed to pay 30,000,000 yen ($260,000), to be divided among three Korean women forced into labor and an organization of bereaved families. [53] In the case of Kajima, the company established a fund of 500,000,000 yen ($4.6 million) that is administered by the Chinese Red Cross to compensate the victims of the slave labor in Hanaoka. [54] Because none of these companies admitted legal fault, these settlements did not satisfy all of the plaintiffs’ demands. Nevertheless, until the case of Nippon Steel Corporation, Japanese companies had never accepted responsibility in any form, and it was thus a significant step for these companies to embrace financial responsibility for their wartime misdeeds. Perhaps the settlements between the plaintiffs and the involved companies are not the important point. What may matter more is that the victims and the survivors of the Japanese atrocities had an opportunity to closely work with humanitarian lawyers who were deeply aware of Japan’s role as a victimizer and who devoted their time and resources to promoting historical reconciliation.

A widespread awareness of war responsibility in Japanese society may be inferred not only from these numerous lawsuits in the 1990s, but also from the opening of a number of museums which displayed Japanese wartime atrocities and colonialism. In 1988, the Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum (Ōkunoshima dokugasu shiryōkan), a public museum that displays artifacts regarding Japan’s use of chemical weapons on the Chinese front, was opened in Hiroshima. In 1989, a high school teacher and his supporters opened their ideal private peace museum called Grass Roots House (Heiwa shiryōkan kusa no ie). Located in Kochi, this museum not only displays evidences of Japan’s victimization of the region, but also organizes tours to visit sites of significance in the Asia-Pacific War in China and South Korea. [55] In 1991, another public museum, “Peace Osaka” (Ōsaka kokusai heiwa sentā), was created in downtown Osaka. The facility exhibits not only the effects of the American fire bombing of the city, but also Japan’s wartime aggression in other parts of Asia. A year later Ritsumeikan University, a private university in Kyoto, opened its peace museum, called the Kyoto Museum for World Peace (Ritsumeikan daigaku kokusai heiwa myūjiamu). The artifacts of the museum underscore that ordinary Japanese, too, supported the government’s war effort and were responsible for the war. After long reflection upon its having supported Japan’s aggression during the war, the university has, since the end of the war, adopted a mission to contribute to promoting world peace. [56] In 1993, Saitama prefecture opened its peace museum, which also displayed artifacts of Japanese war crimes (Saitama-ken heiwa shiryōkan).

In 1994, local activists in Nagasaki inaugurated the Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum (Oka Masaharu kinen Nagasaki heiwa shiryōkan) whose displays are dedicated solely to the victims of Japanese war crimes.


Newspaper correspondents accompanying the army that captured Nanjing were more or less aware of the atrocities by the army. They witnessed innumerable atrocities during the so-called “sacred war,” which was in fact a war of aggression. Yet they dared not remonstrate to the military, deeming it wiser to shut their eyes and to excuse the brutality as an unavoidable wartime evil. The irresponsibility of war correspondents, ourselves included, is reprehensible in its disregard of humanity.

Despite the fact that the military committed unspeakable brutalities, the government issued a statement declaring that Japan would consider Chinese people its friends. Such contradictory actions were characteristic of all Japanese policies on China, resulting in spreading hostility toward Japanese among Chinese people. This hostility remains the bitterest in the more than one-thousand-year history of relations between China and Japan. We must acknowledge the crimes committed by the militarists, epitomized by the Nanjing Massacre, as an ineradicable blot in our history (Takashi Yoshida, The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 49.

[43] Motoshima Hitoshi, Nagasaki shichō no kotoba (Statement of Mayor of Nagasaki), (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1989), pp. 4-6.

[44] Ibid., p. 14.

[45] “Jishuku no machi o aruku” (Wandering Through the City in a Time of Voluntary Self-Restraint), Asahi shinbun, 3 December 1988.

[46] Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Comfort Women (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p.33.

[47] Ibid., p. 35.

[48] Nihon no sensō sekinin shiryō sentā (Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility), Kikan sensō sekinin kenkyū (Study of War Responsibility Quarterly), no. 1 (Fall 1993).

[49] For a chart of these cases, see http://www.linkclub.or.jp/ teppei-y/tawara%20HP/sengo%20hoshou.html.

[50] Oyama Hiroshi, “The Role of Law in Promoting Reconciliation in East Asia: The Accomplishments and Challenges of the Ienaga Textbook Trials and Compensation Trials for the Chinese Victims of Japanese Aggression,” paper presented at the United States Institute of Peace on March 30, 2007 (http://www.usip.org/events/2007/oyama.pdf).

[51] Ōguchi Akihiko, “Nihon seitetsu moto chōyōkō mondai to Shin Nihon seitetsu to no wakai ni tsuite” (Reconciliation between Nippon Steel Company and Its Former Forced Laborers), Kikan sensō sekinin kenkyū, no. 20 (Spring 1998), pp. 8-13.

[52] “Steelmaker NKK Pays Yen 4.1 Million to Beaten Korean,” Japan Times, 7 April 1999.

[53] Hideki Shinjo, “Forced Labor Settlement Sets Precedent Fujikoshi; Plaintiffs Agree on 30 Mil Yen at Supreme Court,” Daily Yomiuri, 19 July 2000, p. 3.

[54] Stephanie Strom, “Fund for Wartime Slaves,” New York Times, 30 November 2000, p. A16.

[55] Yeong Hwan Kim, “Promoting Peace and Reconciliation as a Citizen of East Asia: The Role of the Collaborative East Asian Workshop and the Grassroots House Peace Museum,” paper presented at the United States Institute of Peace on March 30, 2007 (http://www.usip.org/events/2007/kim.pdf).

[56] Kyoto Museum for World Peace, Ritsumeikan University, Museum Guidebook: See, Feel, Think, Then Take Your First Step Toward Peace (Kyoto: Kyoto Museum for World Peace, Ritsumeikan University, n.p.), pp. 1-2.

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