Chinese-Americans push for war redress from Japan
Sixty years after World War II, Chinese-American activists are helping organize a growing international movement that seeks to hold Japan accountable for atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers as they occupied other parts of Asia during the war.
The bitter feud over Japan's invasion of China made headlines in April when violent demonstrations erupted throughout China to protest Tokyo's approval of textbooks that critics say gloss over its military aggression.
But for more than a decade in the United States, Chinese immigrants have waged a grassroots campaign seeking an official apology for Japan's occupation of China, Korea and other parts of Asia, where Japanese troops are accused of killing millions of civilians and forcing women into sexual slavery.
The Chinese government estimates that 35 million people died in China alone as a result of Japan's occupation from 1931 to 1945, when the military routinely used biological and chemical weapons against Chinese citizens.
"Everybody knows about the Holocaust in the West, but nobody knows there was a tragic event that happened in Asia at five times the scale during that war," said Ignatius Ding, 62, a Taiwan-born engineer whose grandfather was a founding member of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomingtang. "That's why we refer to it as the forgotten Holocaust."
The Japanese war crimes redress movement has been gaining momentum in recent years, and Chinese-American activists see their biggest opportunity this year as Japan attempts to join an expanded United Nations Security Council.
The activists, part of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, helped organize an online petition which seeks to block Japan's U.N. bid that the alliance says was signed by more than 40 million people worldwide.
As U.N. member countries debate the Security Council's expansion, activists plan to buy media ads this summer opposing Japan's bid unless Tokyo formally apologizes. They're also calling for boycotting the products of Japanese companies that made artillery for wartime Japan.
Like their counterparts in China, the Chinese-Americans claim Tokyo has suppressed or distorted the history of Japan's invasion of its neighbors, so that most Japanese citizens, especially young people, know little about the country's violent past.
"We want a formal apology so that everyone knows the history and truth of World War II," said Stanford University law student Kevin Han. "We don't want that history destroyed by the Japanese government."
Japanese officials have made public apologies for their country's wartime occupation of its neighbors. Most recently, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, speaking to Asian leaders at the Asian-Africa summit in Indonesia in April, expressed "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" for Japan's colonial rule and aggression.
"Japan's leaders have apologized on various occasions so far," said Yuka Ejima, a spokeswoman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. "It's nonsense to say that Japan hasn't apologized to the Asian people."
But activists call those apologies superficial, pointing to continued visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead and 14 Class-A war criminals.
Instead, they want a strongly worded government apology backed by the Diet. The Global Alliance, made up of some 40 groups, also wants compensation for victims, Japanese textbooks that acknowledge more fully the brutality of the occupation, and laws that punish Japanese citizens who deny or distort Japan's wartime past.
"Preserving the truth is very important. This is the only way for healing to take place between the Japanese and Chinese people," said Betty Huang, who chairs the Global Alliance. "If they don't officially apologize to the Chinese people, Japanese officials will repeat the wrong history again."
Here in Silicon Valley, the grassroots movement started in 1991, when a group of Chinese Americans held a memorial and panel discussion on the 1937-38 massacre in Nanjing, the former Chinese capital.
The city was then known as Nanking, and China says Japanese troops slaughtered as many as 300,000 people in the Rape of Nanking.
"We got a bunch of seniors to show up and they packed the place. We were shocked. We thought people got over things like this," said Ding, who lives in Cupertino. "At the end, they said, 'You people have to do something about this because the war ended without full closure because Japan never really admitted anything.' "
Ding and other Chinese community activists, including children of Nationalist Party officials who fled China after the communist takeover, formed the Alliance for the Preservation of Truth of the Sino-Japanese War.
They organized memorials and demonstrations, linked up with similar advocacy groups around the world and formed the Global Alliance, advancing their cause through public education, legislation and litigation.
Seeing graphic photos of torture and killing at one of the group's events inspired Chinese-American writer Iris Chang to write her 1997 best seller "The Rape of Nanking," which helped galvanize the wartime redress movement.
In 1999, the California Assembly passed a resolution calling on Japan to compensate victims, and Gov. Gray Davis signed a law -- later overturned -- to allow lawsuits against companies allegedly involved in Japanese war crimes.
Their advocacy also helped lead in 2000 to then-President Bill Clinton's order to declassify government records on Japanese war crimes. And this year, they encouraged the California Senate to pass legislation to require schools to teach the history of the war in Asia.
The activists have helped file lawsuits in Japan and the United States seeking class-action compensation for the "comfort women," who were forced into sexual slavery and for prisoners of war forced to perform slave labor for Japanese companies.
None of the suits has yet succeeded, but activists feel like their campaign is gaining momentum.
"When we first started, the Japanese government didn't pay any attention to
us. We were totally insignificant," said Cathy Tsang, one of the movement's
organizers. "Now they're starting to pay attention."