House Speaker John Boehner has invited Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to address Congress on April 29. April 29 is Japan’s Showa Day, the annual celebration of Emperor Hirohito, whose militarism led to the Pacific half of the Second World War. The invitation has invited a minor scandal, irking people who remember that Japan’s behavior during World War II was just as vicious, depraved, and inhuman as the behavior of the Germans and the Russians. However, Boehner’s invitation is a good idea, and fits with longstanding American policy.
A number of veterans’ groups have objected — and who can blame them? During the war, the Japanese murdered, tortured, vivisected, even cannibalized American prisoners. Captured Americans were used for forced labor, and were subject to unbelievably sick medical experiments. Allied soldiers who survived Japanese prisoner-of-war camps emerged looking like walking skeletons; like survivors of Auschwitz. Beyond that, of course, is the savage rape-pillage-and-murder campaign Japan waged against China, Indochina, and every Pacific island it could get its hands on
For sheer evil, no regime in history outstrips Japan’s government from 1930 to 1945. Hirohito, as god-emperor, was that government’s divine leader. Hirohito personally approved the Japanese army’s plan to ignore international conventions in dealing with Chinese prisoners. He personally authorized the use of chemical weapons against Chinese troops. He personally authorized the attack on Pearl Harbor. Knowing of the compassionate treatment of Japanese citizens by American soldiers, and fearing its effect, he personally issued a divine, imperial order encouraging all Japanese civilians to commit suicide rather than accept American victory. His order went so far as to guarantee that civilian suicides on the Japanese-held island of Saipan would have the same prestige in the afterlife as soldiers killed in combat. When American Marines took Saipan, more than a thousand men, women, and children jumped to their deaths off what is now known as Suicide Cliff.
After Japan surrendered, most of her civilian leaders and senior officers were indicted for war crimes. However, MacArthur — who effectively governed Japan from ’45 to ’48 — decided to protect Hirohito and the royal family: To transition from fascism to democracy, MacArthur believed, Japan would need a steady presence at the top of government. And as bad as Hirohito had been, his crimes paled in comparison to those of his prime minister, Hideki Tojo.
Neither Hirohito nor any member of his family’s war-criminal element was charged with a crime; in fact, MacArthur allowed other war criminals, who had been indicted, to coordinate their testimony and jointly censor Hirohito’s indiscretions. MacArthur knew — or at least believed — that no matter how vile Hirohito’s behavior, it was better to exonerate him and ensure Japan’s path toward republican government than convict him and throw the country into chaos. A lesser-of-two-evils situation.
Which is why Boehner’s invitation is a good idea. Like most of modern history, Japan’s Second World War crimes are not nearly as well known as they should be. But as important as remembering the Second World War is, right now we have to concentrate on heading off a Third World War. The Pacific portion of World War II was caused by unchecked Japanese imperialism; modern — nascent — Red Chinese imperialism must not be similarly ignored. As the U.S. fought alongside republican China against fascist Japan, we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with republican Japan against Communist China. The first lines of defense against Beijing’s expansionism are the three great Oriental democracies, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. If our alliance with Japan can be propped up by having Japan’s PM address Congress on Hirohito-remembrance day, so be it. It won’t be the first time prudence has demanded that we look the other way, Hirohito-wise.
However, our Pacific War veterans should take consolation from this: April 29 — Showa Day — is also the anniversary of the day in 1946 that Tojo and 27 other Japanese war criminals were indicted by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. So, as they say: Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.