Breaking Silence : Exhibit on ‘Forgotten Holocaust’ Focuses on Japanese War Crimes
A heart-wrenching exhibition, scrutinizing atrocities committed against tens of millions of Chinese and other Asians by the Japanese military before and during World War II, opens today at the Weingart Gallery at Occidental College.
The Los Angeles showing of the “Forgotten Holocaust” seeks to refute decades of Japan’s denial, followed by distortion, about its aggression in Asia. The exhibit covers three cruel episodes from 1931 to 1945: the systematic biological research conducted by Japanese doctors on Chinese and some Russians, the servitude of as many as 200,000 young women as sex slaves, and the “Rape of Nanking,” the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the old Chinese capital.
“We’ve waited 50 years for Japan to apologize, but that’s like asking war criminals to tell you what the story is,” said Daniel Kwan, a Chinese American developer. He wanted to sponsor the exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war Aug. 15.
Kwan, whose father and uncle nearly died at the hands of their Japanese torturers, said he wanted to share this chapter in history, little known outside the Asian communities, with the rest of the world so that “we can educate ourselves to be better human beings.”
He has spent the equivalent of the price of a new Honda to put on the exhibit, Kwan said. About 50 volunteers, including Hendrik Stooker, senior curator at the Weingart Gallery, have helped.
“I’m emotionally very much part of this,” said Stooker, who lived through World War II in his native Netherlands. “Good or bad, history needs to reflect the truth.”
By facing what happened, Kwan hopes victims and perpetrators and their families will be freed from the pain, shame, fear and denial they have lived with for half a century. And through education and participation, he hopes people everywhere will “overcome government omissions and censorship,” and take action rather than react against political posturing.
Half a century is too long to let the unfinished business remain, he said.
Visitors first enter a “sanctuary,” with a table that has albums of photos of victims, including some showing smiling Japanese soldiers displaying beheaded victims and murdered children, women and elderly people.
The pictures were taken by soldiers as war trophies.
Kwan said he did not frame the photos for display because he did not want to glorify the perpetrators’ exploits. He wanted visitors to view the albums alone for “self-reflection,” he said.
A few feet from the table is an altar where visitors can light a candle and burn incense to remember the victims in the photo albums and bid their spirits farewell.
The second section offers a display of photos and documents of Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army, whose biological warfare experiments on Chinese were among Japan’s best-kept secrets until recently.
Sheldon H. Harris, author “Factories of Death,” a book on Unit 731, estimates that thousands of Chinese were killed in germ warfare field experiments.
The third section memorializes “comfort women” from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels. A replica of a room is on display, along with photos of tearful women--now in their 70s--who shed decades of shame and pain to tell their stories in recent years.
Also in the room is a table with an open letter to Japan’s Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who last month issued an apology for Japan’s wartime actions in forcing women into prostitution.
A month earlier, the lower house of the Japanese parliament finally passed a resolution expressing “deep self-reflection” over Japan’s wartime past. The resolution said that many countries had engaged in “colonial rule and aggressive-like acts,” and that in this historical context, Japan may have committed such acts as well.
The letter from Kwan and other exhibit sponsors notes Murayama’s apology. But it criticizes his government for shirking its responsibility by creating a private fund instead of a public fund to compensate the women.
The suggested sum of $22,700--about the amount that Japanese Americans interned during the war are receiving from the U.S. government--is “another insult upon insult,” the letter says.
“We invite you to join us in a deep self-reflection,” the letter concludes.
The story of the Asian Holocaust has taken so long to get out because “little people” could not stand up to the Japanese government’s machinery, Kwan said.
The great upheavals that followed in China with the civil war and the Communist takeover, too, have hampered the situation.
Kwan also said too many Chinese around the world are more interested in acquiring “Rolexes and Mercedes-Benzes” than coming to grips with historical injustice.
During the 14 years of war with China, Japanese forces killed more than 30 million Chinese, a majority of them civilians, according to Tien-wei Wu, professor emeritus of history at Southern Illinois University and editor of the Journal of Studies of Japanese Aggression Against China.
Wu said the Asian Holocaust never got the attention the Jewish Holocaust received because the Japanese government was able to wage a sophisticated campaign after the war to have itself portrayed as a victim, rather than an aggressor.
Wu, 72, who lived through the war in China, also said that the U.S. occupation forces in Japan helped cover up Japan’s crimes by not going after the war criminals because of a fear of a rebellion by the Japanese people.
The U.S. Army granted immunity from war crime prosecution to the researchers in Unit 731 in exchange for their research data.
During the invasion of Nanking (now Nanjing), Japanese killed an estimated 300,000 in from December, 1937, to March 1938, Wu said.
While the Germans have made soul-searching remorse and repentance “as evidenced by their willingness to pay compensation to their victims and [erect a] museum in memory of their suffering and sacrifice,” the Japanese have not shown “true remorse and repentance,” Wu said.
The exhibit will continue until Aug. 22 at the Weingart Gallery, 1600 College Drive, Eagle Rock. Hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m-7 p.m. Thursday; 2 p.m.- 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
On Aug. 15, a memorial service for the victims will be held at the Oneonta Congregational Church, 1515 Garfield Ave., South Pasadena, at 7:30 p.m.
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