Japanese PM’s Kolkata connection

Monzurul Huq
AS this piece reaches the readers, I presume that the prime minister of Japan will still be in India, on the second stage of his three-nation Asia tour. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Tokyo this Sunday on a week-long tour that will take him to Indonesia, India and Malaysia. This will be his first official visit to India since he assumed office last September. In India, he will meet his counterpart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and will also give a policy speech in the parliament, in which he plans to call for stronger bilateral cooperation between the two major economies.

At his scheduled meeting with the Indian prime minister, the Japanese leader is expected to seek cooperation from the country that has recently become not only a powerhouse in global economy, but also one of the largest greenhouse gas emitting states, on his “Cool Earth 50” initiative aimed at halving global emissions by 2050. Mr. Abe had earlier outlined this goal as a step towards creating a new framework agreement that would succeed the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.

The two countries are also to conclude a currency swap agreement to help counter investor speculation in their respective currencies. Since a stable currency is a key to any country’s continued economic growth, the agreement will help India as it tries to attract foreign investors. A stable rupee will also be advantageous to Japan as the pace of Japanese investment in India is accelerating. In 2006, for example, Japan’s direct investment in India doubled from the previous year to about 60 billion yen.

All this sounds pretty attractive and beyond any controversy. As a result, there should not be any doubt about anything going wrong during this very important visit for both the countries, as Japan too is keen on forging a closer relationship with the emerging Asian giant. But the itinerary of the Japanese prime minister includes a less significant meeting far from the Indian capital New Delhi, at the very end of his visit. That gives a small hint that something controversial might be cooking up at the back. Abe is to make a brief stopover in Kolkata, just next door to Bangladesh, to meet a person he considers very important to his heart.

To understand the depth of this importance, we have to look back briefly at one particular episode in Japan’s recent past, that the Dutch scholar Ian Buruma described beautifully in his book, “Inventing Japan,” in the following words: “On Christmas Eve 1948, a thin middle-age man in a shabby khaki uniform and a peaked cap was released from Sugamo prison. His soft lips formed a toothy smile as he boarded an American jeep.

Kishi Nobusuke had just spent three years in Sugamo jail as a Class A war crimes suspect. He had been General Tojo’s minister of commerce and industry when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Before that, he had been the industrial czar of Manchukuo. He was, in fact, the nearest Japanese equivalent to Albert Speer. His wartime responsibilities ranged from munitions to slave labour. If the war had been fought by soldiers, their conquests had been administered by people like him” (Inventing Japan, page 155).

It should be mentioned that just a couple of days before, on December 22, 1948, seven of the Japanese defendants at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, including Tojo, were hanged at the same Sugamo prison after a simple meal of cold rice and sake. Kishi was lucky enough as the changing times changed the heart of the occupation authorities, which eventually paved the way for him to make a soft landing again at the helm of power straight from the prison. And he is the grandfather of the present Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose vision of a beautiful Japan doesn’t differ much from the grand old man he definitely admires.

It has been reported in the Japanese press that the prime minister of Japan is making his trip to Kolkata to pay a courtesy call on the son of one of the judges of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, who found none of the defendants guilty on any count and who, in his long dissenting judgment, acquitted the defendants of all the charges brought against them.

Judge Radhabinod Pal, the Indian judge in the tribunal, was probably the most well versed in international law among all the eleven judges. He was also a scholar of international repute who had been highly admired in India. Moreover, none of his speeches and writings gives any clear indication of any politically biased inclination that might have influenced him indirectly to come to such a controversial conclusion. As a result, one wonders what prompted him to decide that what General Tojo and his followers did in Manchuria, Nanjing and many other places did not merit to be called war crimes, because those who were judging them did the same in other places they conquered and ruled.

Judge Pal was obviously in need of strong evidence and examples to prove what he said in his dissenting judgment, and he tried to present all such arguments in a lengthy written form that might have taken up much of his time in Tokyo. Writing a judgment covering almost 1,200 pages no doubt requires time and energy, and Judge Pal did not hesitate to give time for that purpose, most likely at the expense of the court proceedings that judges are not supposed to skip.

American Scholar John Dower, in his acclaimed account of post World War II Japan, “Embracing Defeat,” gives us a hint that Judge Pal probably knew how he intended to vote before being seated at the tribunal. For, Dower reminds us, Judges Pal and Webb were notably absent from portions of the proceedings (Embracing Defeat, page 465). So, there is a possibility that the Indian judge might have taken up the seat with a preconceived judgment, a highly controversial position that runs contrary to what a free and fair trial is supposed to be.

But for those who in Japan tend to look at the country’s wartime history with a feeling of nostalgia and humiliation, Judge Pal had immediately become a hero, and the worship of such a hero has long been shifted to its right place — the controversial Yasukuni shrine that, from time to time, fans the feeling of distrust and suspicion among Japan’s neighbours. The Yasukuni shrine has a museum adjacent to it that largely displays items related to Japan’s past wars. Until a few years ago, it also displayed a large portrait of Judge Pal, which was replaced recently by a life-size bust. Skeptics in Japan say that since the museum cannot show any portrait or bust of Tojo publicly, therefore, Judge Pal represents sort of a proxy for Japan’s war-time leader, as he had acquitted him of all the charges of war crimes.

As a result, Abe’s visit to Kolkata to pay respect to the deceased Indian judge of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal is seen by many in Japan, and probably also in neighbouring countries, as a sort of a proxy visit to Yasukuni shrine at a time when he refrains from going there personally just to appease the neighbours.

Mozurul Huq is a Daily Star columnist.

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