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Recovering Japan's wartime past - and also the USA's

By Steven Clemons - posted Saturday, 15 September 2001

Celebrations this Saturday of the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Treaty of Peace, which established the postwar relationship between Japan and the world, will focus on Japan's emergence as a pacifist market economy under the tutelage of its conqueror and later ally, the United States. Little attention will be paid to questions of historical memory or of liability for Japan's behavior during the war. The 1951 treaty, largely through the efforts of America's principal negotiator, John Foster Dulles, sought to eliminate any possibility of war reparations. This undoubtedly cemented Japan's alliance with the United States and helped its economic rebirth. But Dulles's and Japan's strategy also fostered a deliberate forgetfulness whose consequences haunt us today.

Dulles had been a United States counsellor at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, with special responsibility for reparations. He had opposed, without much success, the heavy penalties imposed by the Allies on Germany. These payments were widely seen as responsible for the later collapse of Germany's economy and, if obliquely, for the rise of Nazism. After World War II, Dulles feared that heavy reparations burdens would similarly cripple Japan, make it vulnerable to Communist domination and prevent it from rebuilding. It was crucial to Dulles that Japan not face claims arising from its wartime conduct.

The San Francisco Treaty has been used to this day, by Japan and America, as a shield against any such claims.


Nonetheless, when he had to, Dulles allowed an exception, one that has remained largely hidden. The signatories to the San Francisco Treaty waived "all reparations claims of the Allied Powers, other claims of the Allied Powers and their nationals arising out of any actions taken by Japan and its nationals in the course of the prosecution of the War." But recently declassified documents show that Dulles, in negotiating this clause, also negotiated a way out of it.

Dulles had persuaded most of the Allied powers to accept the treaty. One major nation that refused to sign was Korea, because of its enmity against Japan for colonizing the Korean Peninsula. India, China and the Soviet Union also declined to sign.

For a brief while it appeared that the Netherlands would do likewise. Only days before the treaty was to be signed, the Dutch government threatened to walk out of the convention because it feared that the treaty "expropriated the private claims of its individuals" to pursue war-related compensation from Japanese private interests. Tens of thousands of Dutch civilians in the East Indies had lost their property to Japanese companies, which had followed Japan's armies to the Indies. They wanted compensation, and they had political power in Holland.

European opinion mattered to Dulles, who feared that a Dutch exodus might lead the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand to drop out as well. On the day before and the morning of the signing ceremony, Dulles orchestrated a confidential exchange of letters between the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands, Dirk Stikker, and Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida of Japan. Yoshida pledged that "the Government of Japan does not consider that the Government of the Netherlands by signing the Treaty has itself expropriated the private claims of its nationals so that, as a consequence thereof, after the Treaty comes into force these claims would be non-existent."

Article 26 of the treaty states that, "should Japan make a peace settlement or war claims settlement with any State granting that State greater advantages than those provided by the present Treaty, those same advantages shall be extended to the parties to the present Treaty." This is why the letters had to be confidential: they preserved the rights of some Allied private citizens, in this case Dutch citizens, to pursue reparations.

Such an agreement, if publicized, could have opened the way for other claims - reparations was a huge and emotional issue after the war. These letters were not declassified until April 2000, by which time most potential claimants were probably dead.


In 1956, the Dutch did successfully pursue a claim against Japan on behalf of private citizens. Japan paid $10 million as a way of "expressing sympathy and regret." Japan had been slow about making its deal with the Netherlands, and the United States had to remind the Japanese that, as a declassified State Department document puts it, the United States had "exerted considerable pressure on the Netherlands representatives with a view to their signing the Peace Treaty," and "one of the arrangements was assurance that the terms of the Yoshida-Stikker letters would be honored."

A year before, the British noted two other instances in which governments had made deals with Japan for reparations: a settlement with Burma that provided reparations, services and investments amounting, over 10 years, to $250 million; and an agreement with Switzerland that provided "compensation for maltreatment, personal injury and loss arising from acts illegal under the rules of war."

The British Foreign Ministry elected not to take any action on behalf of British nationals - and chose not to publicize the information. The United States concurred, with one official commenting, "Further pressure would be likely to cause the maximum of resentment for the minimum of advantage." Nonetheless, the Stikker- Yoshida letters and the Burmese and Swiss agreements could all be used to make Japan, under Article 26 of the San Francisco Treaty, offer similar terms to the treaty's 47 signatories.

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This is article was first published in The New York Times on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

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About the Author

Steven C. Clemons is executive vice president of the New America Foundation.

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