Leading article: The need to forgive

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The Independent Online
"HYSTERIA, demonisation and vengefulness." Before the visit of Emperor Akihito of Japan, we characterised in these pages the public mood which tends to be stoked by the tabloid press whenever past crimes are raked over. So it came to pass. The Mirror devoted two pages to stories of Japanese torture more than 50 years ago under the headline "What price our heroes Tony?" When the Emperor was awarded the Order of the Garter, it thundered: "Today we are all being asked to put money before pride." The Prime Minister had insulted the veterans by asking them to be nice to the Emperor for the sake of our yen earnings. And the Emperor had delivered "A Final Kick in the Teeth" by brushing aside the protests of Jack Caplan, 83, quoted on the front page as saying: "I watched my friends beheaded, their bodies squirming on the ground. I've come here for them."

The Sun, which in January carried an "apology" from the Japanese prime minister (ghosted by Tony Blair's Words R Us unit in Downing Street), joined in: "How can we ever forget?" And when Mr Blair appealed for a warm welcome for the Emperor, the Daily Mail turned the story round: "Angry PoWs attack Blair." A disproportionate amount of attention was paid to the few who disagreed with the Prime Minister, and to the few who turned their back on the Emperor when his cavalcade drove past. It is true that some of the former prisoners of war are properly indignant at their government's failure to extract fuller apologies and reparations from Japan, and were mortally offended by the pomp and courtesy with which the Emperor was received. But the larger truth is that the vast majority of former prisoners of the Japanese were probably embarrassed by the displays of public rudeness and flag-burning.

There is a strong case to be made against the official Japanese stance. Japan could easily afford more generous compensation for crimes committed during the war. The fact that it was long ago is no defence. More important, though, is what the refusal to re-open this issue says about Japanese attitudes to the past. It is not so much the role of honour in Japanese culture, or the precise connotations of the word "sorry" - you do not need to be a trained linguist to spot the difference between "sorrow" and "sorry". But it is deeply worrying that Japanese children are not taught the truth about their history - that Japan is a society in a state of denial about its past aggression.

These are issues of great moral complexity, which cannot be reduced to the raucous xenophobia of the tabloid press. We prefer the quieter voices from among the British veterans. The voice of Eric Lomax, who describes in his book, The Railway Man, his suffering as a prisoner of war, but also how he later met and was reconciled with his chief torturer. And the voice of E W Swanton, the Daily Telegraph's cricket writer and veteran of the Burma-Siam railway, who wrote last week of his "Christian's duty" to forgive, and cited the many cases of former PoWs who dedicated their lives after the war not only to the welfare of their comrades, but also to reconciliation with the Japanese.

As banal as the tabloid vilification of Japan has been the repeated trotting- out of "forgive and forget" - one of the less helpful alliterations in the English language. The worst offender, in this case, was the Prime Minister himself, who said of the PoWs in the House of Commons two weeks ago: "We must never - and will never - forget, or indeed forgive, the suffering of those people." It was a shocking statement, mean in spirit, and unexpected from a devout Christian.

You do not have to be a Christian to believe in moral redemption through forgiveness: it should be fundamental to any developed system of civilised morality that we should not forget but that we should forgive. And there have been encouraging signs over the past week that the tabloids were unsure that their readers would sign up for the full monochrome, xenophobic package. The Daily Mail was muted in its coverage, describing the protesters as "Silent but unbowed", and commenting that the Emperor should be received hospitably. Even the Mirror, which led the frothing pack, carried a plea by "Mirror columnist Tony Parsons's Japanese wife Yuriko" which was headed: "My Emperor's visit claws at a wound that needs many more years to heal, but please don't hate all Japanese." Perhaps the Emperor's visit has taught us, as a nation, a little more about forgiveness. Were that so, it would have been worthwhile.