Let's Stop Bashing Japan: Commentary on Tsuchiya, Sass, Thomas, Nie & Tsuneishi

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

E-mail: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 134-135.


I learned a great deal about German and Japanese Imperial Army medical experimentation from the three articles and the commentary in the May, 2003 issue of EJAIB. Hans-Martin's information about early German legislation requiring informed consent was especially enlightening. I think, however, that we are harping too much on past sins.

The damages of the Nazi holocaust still remain among my people, especially in the emotional load carried by children of holocaust survivors, and perhaps also by grandchildren. When, in my lectures, I had used examples of German medical experimentation in order to explain the background to much of today's bioethics, I sometimes caused tearful outbursts from some of my students. I decided, therefore, to keep Nazi examples out of my classroom as much as possible. They are just too close to us. I therefore chose to use examples from Japanese wartime medical experimentation. Takashi Tsuchiya's 2000 article, (EJAIB 2000 10:179-180), is required reading in almost all of my ethics classes.

I have found, however, that Takashi's article tends to elicit from my students racist generalizations about Japanese people and culture. For me, this is quite uncomfortable, especially because of my long time affection for Japan. It is also embarrassing for me whenever Jewish people make unkind generalizations about Japanese, given the fact that the Japanese gave refuge to all Jews who managed to reach Japan or Japanese-ruled territories like Manchuria or Singapore during the holocaust. I have a neighbor, in fact, who was born in Japan and lived there until the age of 16. His father had been a doctor in Vienna. But during the 1930's he began to sense that things were going to be bad for Austrian Jews. He saw an advertisement for a doctor in his specialty at a hospital in Osaka, applied and was accepted. He took his young wife to Japan, where my neighbor was born. He once said to me: "The Japanese were not angels, but they were not capable of the mass extermination of a people, like the Nazis did." It is in fact documented in a book called The Fugu Plan, by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer that a Nazi general once arrived in Japan with plans for gas chambers for the extermination of Jews and perhaps others. The Japanese officers who received the general thanked him politely, and then put the plans into a drawer and forgot about them.

The fact that the Japanese were good to my people does not negate the fact that their army did many bad things. But let's put the matter in perspective. The Japanese had been an isolated island for many centuries, preferring to stay out of all international affairs, until United States Navy gunboats, under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1854, forced the Japanese to agree to a treaty allowing trade with the West. Also in the 19th century, the British used naval and military power to force the Chinese to the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, in which the Chinese had to agree to allow the British to sell opium freely in China. Until World War II, most of Asia belonged to the British or Dutch empires, or was under Western economic control. Solving problems by means of war may often not be excusable, but it is certainly understandable why the Japanese went to war.

In complaining about how few Japanese war criminals were actually prosecuted, we should not forget that nobody, but nobody was ever prosecuted for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the horrendous American firebombing of vast civilian neighborhoods in Tokyo and other cities. War criminals are always and only on the losing side.

After the war, it was probably the occupying Americans who were responsible for the idea that Japanese militarists were responsible for the atomic bombings, as if the Americans were innocent people who had no other means to stop the spread of "Japanese Militarism". But self-flagellating Japanese have been responsible for perpetuating this myth. One example is the excellently written, but I think misleading cartoon novel, Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa. It is a strange event that Japanese writers have been responsible for anti-Japanese racism: such as the reaction of some of my students to Takashi's 2000 article.

I have often heard the Japanese accused of hypocrisy for condemning the American atomic bombings, but not condemning the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army. But almost everything I know about Japanese Imperial Army atrocities, I learned from Japanese people.

Of course the Japanese Imperial Army was responsible for atrocities in China and elsewhere. But what nation was free of atrocities in those days? I remember sitting at a table in a university cafeteria in the United States, early in the 1960's, with a fellow student who was a veteran of the US war in Korea. He bragged about an incident when they took a Chinese soldier prisoner. They found on his person the wallet of an American soldier. Inside the wallet was a photograph of an American woman, perhaps the American soldier's wife, on which the Chinese soldier had apparently drawn obscene drawings. The American soldiers tied the Chinese high to the wall of a building, with his legs spread wide apart. They then took turns beating his testicles with a sledgehammer. Having grown up in an atmosphere of constant anti-Japanese, anti-Chinese and anti-North Korean propaganda, I was not ethically mature enough to protest at that time. But the story has troubled me ever since. Several years later, however, my ethics had matured to the point that the American atrocities in Vietnam precipitated my resignation from a position at Wright State University, which was heavily involved in research for the United States Air Force. In those days, we used to sing a song about the American President, Lyndon B. Johnson ("LBJ"): Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? American and other atrocities do not, of course, excuse the Japanese Imperial Army. But why single out one nation for so much bashing?

In Takashi's May 2003, EJAIB article, he says: Thus the issue of human experimentation has become a taboo (a subject of which we must never speak or discuss) in Japanese medical profession after the World War II. But I do not think that this is true. Takashi, himself, discussed the subject at the 7th International Tsukuba Bioethics Roundtable, February 17, 2002, at Tsukuba University, as he mentions at the end of his paper. I am sure there were medical doctors present, in addition to the biologists, philosophers and others. In fact the Roundtable was held in one of the Tsukuba University Medical School's buildings. I don't know how it can be said that this is never discussed in the medical profession, when Takashi discussed it in a medical school.

In the same article, he also says that in Japan: There is little discussion on ethics of human research in behavioral sciences. But this situation is not unique to Japan.

In Israel, every year in the spring, we have Holocaust Remembrance Day. I think it is appropriate that the Nazi atrocities should be remembered, so that we can mourn our dead and maimed, and maintain consciousness in order that such deeds should never be repeated. But once a year is enough. Why perpetuate hatred? Hatred is as bad for the hater as for the hated, perhaps worse. Japanese wartime medical experimentation, similarly, should not be forgotten. But its remembrance should be kept within bounds.


Go to response by Nie (in Sept. 2003 issue of EJAIB)
Go back to EJAIB 13 (4) July 2003
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet:
http://eubios.info/index.html