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Editorial: Japan needs to face up to history and keep precise records

Seventy-three years have passed since the end of World War II, and a third postwar era is set to begin in May of next year, after the eras of Showa -- which straddled before and after the war -- and Heisei, which ushered in in 1989.

Nevertheless, Aug. 15 will remain our point of reference because the day serves as a time to review the system of our country Japan from its foundations.

One of the questions posed about Japan is a national tendency of irresponsibility. The mindset was once described by political scholar Masao Maruyama as "completely lacking the strong self-consciousness about causing such a large-scale war."

Prewar Japan demanded absolute loyalty from its people, but those at the core of the state were busy protecting the institutions under their control and trying to respond to the reality of war.

The Center for Military History attached to the National Institute for Defense Studies keeps a set of documents called the "Ichigayadai dossier." They are pasted on Japanese paper and some were burned and are difficult to decipher.

These are the remains of papers that the Japanese Imperial Army ordered to be destroyed before and after the end of the war. Those records were discovered in an excavation study of the Ground Self-Defense Force's Camp Ichigaya in Tokyo, where major army facilities stood before the war and where now the Ministry of Defense is located. The Tokyo Metropolitan Archaeological Center conducted the survey originally on the underground ruins of the main compound of the Owari feudal domain of the Edo period (1603-1868) based in present-day Aichi Prefecture.

The records include original papers submitted by Hideki Tojo, who was the prime minister when Japan launched the Pacific War, to Emperor Showa seeking his approval, and the result of an investigation by the military police headquarters on domestic reactions to the July 1945 Potsdam Declaration by the United States, Britain and China that demanded Japan's unconditional surrender. A "special emergency telegram" sent from Hiroshima shortly after the U.S. atomic bombing of the city is also a major item among the files.

It is a well-known fact that the army, the navy and the home ministry started a systematic burning of their secret documents shortly after Japan's acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration was decided. According to "The Complete History of the Greater East Asia War" authored by former Japanese Imperial armed forces officers on the Pacific War, "the black smoke of book burning" continued to billow from the afternoon of Aug. 14, 1945, through Aug. 16.

Despite the massive scale of burning, no records are left on who made the decision to do so. Orders for the action were apparently destroyed along with those secret documents. A trace of this arrangement can be found in a telegram received by a Japanese Imperial Army unit in the southern main island of Kyushu. It reads: "Burn documents that are deemed important. This telegram too must be burned right after reception."

The destruction orders were apparently issued in preparation for the coming trials of war criminals. It is not difficult to imagine that one of the intentions of the orders was to do away with records that could work to the disadvantage of Emperor Showa. In Germany, where the Nazi government surrendered to the Allied forces earlier than Japan in May 1945, preparations were already underway for the Nuremberg trials where Nazi war criminals were prosecuted.

As those secret documents were destroyed, the line of responsibility connecting military bureaucrats in the execution of the 15-year war that started with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, was cut into pieces, making it difficult to reconstruct who did what and why.

After the war ended, bureaucrats, who had been regarded as "officials of the Emperor," now became "servants of the people." Nevertheless, we were forced to witness a situation recently as if we were thrown back to the past. Financial Ministry officials falsified and discarded public documents.

Bureaucrats' motivation to commit those acts apparently included a hope to curry favor with those in power, and to protect themselves. Finance Minister Taro Aso, however, distanced himself from the officials he was supposed to oversee, and declared, "It would be easy if we understand why they did it but we don't."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, irritated by accusations pressed on him over those cases by the opposition camp, insisted that a ministry probe proved that he and his wife had nothing to do with favoritism scandals behind the tampering and disposal of those Finance Ministry documents.

It appears that the chain of irresponsibility continues to exist inside the government.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East started its proceedings in May 1946 to try Class-A war criminals of Japan. As expected, the massive burning of important documents adversely affected the trials, leading to a substantial shortage of evidence.

Professor Yoshinobu Higurashi of Teikyo University wrote in his book "Tokyo Saiban" (Tokyo Trial), the proceedings at the tribunal took longer "because issues that can be solved with the submission of a single public document had to be proved with long affidavits and testimonies."

The lack of records invited debate based on ideologies, not historical facts. Those on the right in Japan claim that the Tokyo Trial is based on a historic view tainted with self-degradation, but they do not say how to settle on responsibilities for the war.

A country that does not share facts or examine the past will not have a common recognition about its history. Hidehiro Okada, a historian who passed away in May last year, argued that if a civilization with a cultural factor called history confronts another without it, the civilization with history will always prevail. In his book "Sekaishi no Tanjo" (The birth of world history), Okada explained the reason in this thought-provoking way: "In a civilization without history, the only way to live is to live in the present. One can only take chances."

Those in power often justify their actions by saying they will wait for the judgment of history. The argument is convincing only when a substantial body of precise records exists.

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