The lies we tell to appease the enemies who are now our friends

Even now, the Japanese government will not acknowledge the crimes of rape and massacre committed in the last war

Robert Fisk

29 November 2003

When George Bush sneaked into Baghdad airport for his two-hour "warm meal" for Thanksgiving, he was in feisty form. Americans hadn't come to Baghdad "to retreat before a bunch of thugs and assassins". Evil is still around, it seems, ready to attack the forces of Good. And if only a handful of the insurgents in Iraq are ex-Baathists - and I suspect it is only a handful - then who would complain if Saddam's henchmen are called "thugs"? But Evil's a tricky thing. Here one day, gone the next. Take Japan.

Now, I like the Japanese. Hard-working, sincere, cultured - just take a look at their collection of French impressionists - they even had the good sense to pull out of George Bush's "war on terror". And Japan, remember, is one of the examples George always draws upon when he's promising democracy in Iraq. Didn't America turn emperor-obsessed Japan into a freedom-loving nation after the Second World War?

So, in Tokyo not so long ago, I took a walk down memory lane. Not my memory, but the cruelly cut-short memory of a teenage Royal Marine called Jim Feather. Jim was the son of my dad's sister Freda and he was on the Repulse when she was sunk by Japanese aircraft on 10 December, 1941. Jim was saved and brought back to Singapore, only to be captured when the British surrendered. Starved and mistreated, he was set to work building the Burma railway. Anyone who remembers David Lean's magnificent film Bridge on the River Kwai will have a good idea of what happened. One of his friends later told Freda that in Jim's last days, he could lift the six-foot prisoner over his shoulder as if he were a child. As light as a feather, you might say. He died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp sometime in 1942.

I wasn't thinking of Jim when I walked into the great Shinto shrine in central Tokyo where Japan's war dead are honoured; not just the "banzai-banzai" poor bloody infantry variety, but the kamikazes, the suicide pilots who crashed their Zero fighter-bombers on to American aircraft carriers. Iraq's suiciders may not know much about Japan's "divine wind", but there's a historical narrative that starts in the Pacific and stretches all the way through Sri Lanka's suicide bombers to the Middle East. If President Bush's "thugs and assassins" think of Allah as they die, Japan's airmen thought of their emperor. At the Shinto shrine, in the area containing photographs of the Japanese campaign, there are some helpful captions in English. But in the room with the portraits of the kamikazes - including a devastating oil painting of a suicide attack on a US carrier - the captions are only in Japanese. I wasn't surprised.

What I was amazed to see, a few metres from the shrine, was a stretch of railway with a big bright green Boy's Own paper steam locomotive standing on it. Japanese teenagers were cleaning the piston rods and dabbing a last touch of green to the boiler. As a boy, I of course wanted to be an engine driver, so I climbed aboard. Anyone speak English, I asked? What is this loco doing in a Shinto shrine? An intense young man with thin-framed spectacles smiled at me. "This was the first locomotive to pull a Japanese military train along the Burma railway," he explained. And then I understood. Royal Marine Jim Feather had died so this pretty little train could puff through the jungles of Burma. In fact, this very same loco's first duty was to haul the ashes of dead Japanese soldiers north from the battlefront.

The Japanese are our friends, of course. They are the fruit of our democracy. But what does this mean? Even now, the Japanese government will not acknowledge the full details of the crimes of rape and massacre against women in their conquered "Greater South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". After the post-war International Military Tribunal - 27 Japanese war criminals were prosecuted and seven of them were hanged - not a single Japanese has been prosecuted for war crimes in Japanese courts. Men who have admitted taking part in the mass rape of Chinese girls - let alone the "comfort women" from China and Korea forced to work in brothels - are still alive, safe from prosecution.

Didn't these men represent Evil? What is the difference between the young Japanese men honoured for blowing themselves up against American aircraft carriers and the equally young men blowing themselves up against American bases in Iraq? Sure, the Iraqi insurgents don't respect the Red Cross. Nor did the Japanese.

It's all a matter of who your friends are. Take that little exhibition of "crimes against humanity" a year ago at the Imperial War Museum in London. Included is a section on the 1915 Armenian Holocaust, the genocide of one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, which taught Hitler how to carry out the greatest genocide of the 20th century, the Holocaust of six million European Jews. But the exhibition included a disclaimer from the Turkish government, which still fraudulently claims that the Armenians were not murdered in a genocide carefully planned by the Turkish leaders of the time - which is the truth - but merely victims of chaos in First World War Turkey.

Andy Kevorkian, whose father's entire family was murdered by the Turks in 1915, wrote a letter to Robert Crawford, the museum's director general. Nowhere in the exhibition is there a disclaimer of the Jewish Holocaust by the right-wing historian David Irving or by neo-Nazis, Kevorkian complained. Nor should there be. But "for the IWM to bow to Turkish (or is it Foreign Office?) pressure to deny what the entire world accepts as the first genocide of the 20th century is an insult to the Armenians who survived... For the IWM to allow the Turks to say that this didn't happen is a travesty of justice and truth."

But the disclaimer wasn't removed. The New York Times, which originally broke the story, now spends its time casting doubt on the killings, calling them "alleged". Not long ago, the paper carried a well-known 1915 photograph, taken by a German, of a line of Armenian men being led away to execution. But The New York Times caption fraudulently stated that the Armenians were being "marched to prison [sic] by Turkish soldiers in 1915". What next? Is The New York Times going to carry photographs of Europe's doomed Jews being packed into cattle trains and claim they are en route to "resettlement camps"?

It's the same old problem. The steam loco in Tokyo and the disclaimer in the Imperial War Museum and the newspaper photo caption are lies to appease enemies who are now friends. Japan is a Western democracy. So Evil is ignored. Turkey is our secular ally, a democracy that wants to join the European Union. So Evil is ignored. But fear not. As the Americans try ever more desperately to escape from Iraq, the thugs and assassins will become the good guys again and the men of Evil in Iraq will be working for us. The occupation authorities have already admitted re-hiring some of Saddam's evil secret policemen to hunt down the evil Saddam.

Tricky stuff, Evil.