Japan Blocking Probe of War Criminals, U.S. Says


Japan is stymieing American efforts to identify suspected war criminals by failing to cooperate with requests for information, U.S. officials have publicly charged--a statement that is certain to reignite questions about the sincerity of Japanese apologies for past war misdeeds.

“Japan is the only country in the world from whom we seek assistance that does not provide it,” Eli M. Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s office of special investigations, said this week in the government’s first public criticism of Japan in connection with the issue.

“It is wrong. For a friendly government to know there are people we’re trying to keep out of our country and be unwilling even to give you birth dates is wrong.”

Although the government in the past has deliberately not commented about the issue, “there just comes a time when it’s obvious they are not going to assist and there is no point in refraining from disclosing this any longer,” Rosenbaum said.


The government statement came about in part because of efforts by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has been widening its human rights mission beyond issues of Nazi war crimes to include the bitterly divisive subject of Japan’s war misdeeds.

The center’s involvement in the war crimes issue began last year, when Los Angeles writer Kinue Tokudome invited Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, to meet with six repentant Japanese war veterans in Tokyo.

Moved by the gripping confessions--one man tearfully recalled how he cut down a 12-year-old boy begging for his life to teach other soldiers how to kill--Cooper sought to publicize their stories in a video conference in August. He also stepped up efforts to obtain a public statement from the U.S. government about Japan’s record.

Unlike Germany and other European nations that have cooperated extensively with U.S. efforts, Japan, despite years of requests, has not granted access to archival records or even confirmed the birth dates of suspected war criminals independently identified by U.S. investigators, Rosenbaum said.


The Justice Department office was charged in 1978 with deporting, or barring from entry into the United States, perpetrators of World War II crimes against humanity from Germany and its former Axis allies.

Japanese officials in Washington declined to comment.

Within Japan, intense opposition to cooperation and concerns about legal liability if privacy rights are violated are known to be factors hobbling the government.

The issue of wartime atrocities--such as the 1937 slaughter of Chinese in the city of Nanjing, germ warfare research by the Japanese army and forced sexual servitude to Japanese troops of women, primarily Koreans and Chinese--has dogged the Japanese for more than half a century.


Last week, Japanese Ambassador Kunihiko Saito went on television in the United States to debate Iris Chang, author of the best-selling book “The Rape of Nanking,” and argue--again--that Japan has apologized numerous times for its war misdeeds.

“I don’t really understand why some people in [Asia] refuse somehow to admit that Japan has recognized its responsibility and offered apologies,” Saito said during the debate, which took place on PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”

Despite Japan’s efforts to atone for its past--including a string of apologies, a privately funded compensation program and textbook revisions to more fully reflect the wartime record--its lack of cooperation on the war criminal issue is certain to raise fresh accusations of insincerity.

At the same time, some experts contend that the U.S. government has little place criticizing Japan. The U.S. position is “hopelessly hypocritical,” said Japan scholar Chalmers Johnson.


American occupiers were the ones who exonerated Emperor Hirohito of all war crimes, reinstalled into power “neo-fascist right-wingers and the criminal underworld” to secure a Cold War ally in Asia, and granted immunity to some perpetrators of gruesome human experiments to obtain their germ warfare research, Johnson said.

U.S. policies, in fact, have been part of the difficulty faced by Justice Department investigators, Rosenbaum said. U.S. officials returned war-related archives to the Japanese in the 1960s without microfilming them, as they did with the German records.

Rosenbaum said his office has been able to identify fewer than 100 Japanese suspects, compared to 60,000 Europeans on the “watch list” of those ineligible to enter the United States. He said his office requested birth date information two years ago from Japan but has received no response.

Despite the obstacles, the office added 16 Japanese names to the watch list in 1996 and this year blocked two repentant war veterans from entering the country to testify about their experiences.


Cooper plans to expand his involvement in Japanese war crimes issue during a visit to Tokyo next month, when he intends to propose that Japan join a global move to unveil the full truth of the war by throwing open its archives and convening an international commission of scholars to study the issue.

“Everywhere, the goal is the same--not to inflict guilt, but to draw appropriate lessons from an era that caused more suffering to humankind than any other event in the history of the planet,” Cooper said in his Nov. 17 letter to Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura urging that the nation cooperate with the U.S. investigation.