Lately I feel I’ve been playing Devil’s Advocate quite a bit. I just hope nobody’s been offended. I have a habit of disagreeing with almost anything anybody says. I do it for the sake of conversation, to flesh out the forgotten assumptions, and see how well people have really thought about what they say. And in the cases where someone is talking about something I actually believe in, I still do it, pointing out the same little problems that I struggle with to get some insight on how they might be resolved, for my own sake! I think I’m just being genuinely curious, but I have a feeling the other person sometimes thinks I’m just doing it because I’m an ass.
Here’s an extreme example but a real one, for the sake of argument if you wish. I only read this online (on a facebook group about the Rape of Nanjing) but haven’t had an actual conversation, electronic or otherwise, with a person about it so this is all new material.
Numerous powerful politicians in Japan have openly denied the incidences of wanton rape, torture, and unprejudiced slaughter. In fact, the current prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi still visits the war shrine that houses the souls of some of the leaders of the perpetration of the Rpae [sic] of Nanking. To put this in perspective, imagine someone like Angela Merkel, or any powerful German politician, denying the Holocaust. Or as in the latter example, Mrs. Merkel visiting a shrine that commemorated Hitler, Himmler, or Hoess. Ridiculous, disgusting, and immoral to say the least.
First of all I admit that as far as I can remember that I had not heard of this massacre before this past Sunday night, although while living in Japan I did hear about two controversies involving it: Japanese history textbooks glossing over the actions of the Japanese military during the war and Koizumi’s visits to the war shrine. As I said, I knew very little of the former, but I didn’t understand what the fuss was about in the case of the latter. This is in part because I didn’t know anything about it beforehand, and quite possibly because what I was told about it was told to me by my Japanese family and friends through an only semipermeable language barrier. My instinctive reaction to the above quoted paragraph was to disagree completely. Even now, having read more about the Nanjing massacre and the Sino-Japanese war in general, I still don’t see Koizumi’s visits to the shrine as either ridiculous or disgusting, and certainly not immoral.
I realise this may offend people, so let me reiterate—I am not saying that the massacre is nothing to get upset about. It was an incredible display of human cruelty to say the least. But (the problems of revisionist histories aside, which are wrong) can we really say that visits to the shrine are “ridiculous, disgusting, and immoral”?
Let’s look at the analogy offered of visiting a shrine dedicated to Hitler. This is fallacious in that Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine honours almost 2.5 million people who died in the name of the emperor, wartime or otherwise—it is not a shrine specifically to the architects of the Nanjing massacre or even the war in general. However, there are about 1000 convicted war criminals included in their ranks, so maybe it is a minor point. The question is this: Would it be immoral to visit a shrine to Germany’s wartime dead, Hitler, Himmler, and Hoess among them, just as we honour ours on Remembrance Day?
The difficulty is in that the Germans and Japanese were the aggressors in the war, fighting for a cause which we consider to be immoral today. But even with that, I would suggest that remembering the dead, regardless of who they are, doesn’t carry with it approval of what they may have fought for. Perhaps it just sounds like I’m preaching forgiveness for all sins. Maybe I am. At the very least we should remember that young men with families and friends and lives ahead of them die on the enemy’s side just as easily as on ours and that that loss is no less lamentable. I would go as far as saying that there is nothing immoral in visiting even a shrine to Hitler, the de facto archetype of immorality himself, if only to remember the atrocities he, like the Japanese military, committed so that we might better ourselves for it.
So, as Douglas Adams said (in an entirely different subject but a debate nonetheless), “That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!” Or, since this is the internet, let the hate mail roll in!