This Christmas week was good for denials. World War II issues of responsibility that most thought were settled reemerged. After of a year of considerable progress for both Japan and the Vatican in acknowledging atrocities allowed by their wartime regimes, this is both surprising and disappointing. Saying sorry is no substitute for a genuine apology of words and deeds.
On December 20th, an Australian search team found the hospital ship, The Centaur, that was sunk during World War II off the coast of Australia in 1943. The Centaur went down with the loss of 268 lives after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine—despite being painted white with red crosses.
According to Japan’s official 1979 submarine warfare history, it was submarine 1-177, under the command of Lt Commander Nakagawa who had sunk the Centaur. Lt Commander Nakagawa was convicted as a war criminal for firing on survivors of the British Chivalry, which his ship had sunk in the Indian Ocean. He was not charged, however, for the sinking of The Centaur.
Japan’s embassy in Canberra hastily issued a statement to the press (which cannot be found on their website) on December 23rd that said the circumstances in which the Centaur went down were not conclusive. "The Japanese government had conducted its own inquiry into the Centaur," the statement said, without giving any indication when the inquiry took place. “The circumstances were not clear given that it occurred during the Second World War. We will see how the on-going investigation by Australia unfolds." The Embassy continued with a reworking of the traditional and tired Murayama apology, "Japan, reflecting on the past, has since made the greatest efforts for world peace and prosperity as a responsible member of the international community and has also developed a close relationship with Australia.”
Members of the Centaur Memorial Association were disgusted by the Embassy’s response and some demanded an apology. But the Australian government jumped into damage control and a Foreign Ministry spokesman referred to Japan's past apologies for other wartime atrocities and said (also not on their website) that "The Australian government recognises the suffering endured by families of those killed as a result of the sinking of the Australian hospital ship Centaur in 1943." And added that "Australia accepts Japan's repeated apologies -- the 1951 Peace Treaty, which Australia signed, drew a line under Japan's crimes during the World War II for which many Japanese were rightly tried, convicted and sentenced. Japan is now a different country; it contributes greatly to regional prosperity and security."
Maybe after filming the remains of The Centaur and confirmation of what sunk the hospital ship, Japan will send a representative to the annual memorial, as some have suggested. The Hatoyama Administration came to office saying it wanted to face squarely Japan's history. We are waiting.
Later: Sunk Australia WWII hospital ship Centaur: first images
Next post, The Vatican