The first ever poll of Californian attitudes toward Japan's World War II war crimes finds that fewer than a third of state voters believe Japan still needs to apologize and pay compensation--a demand being made internationally and here by former U.S. prisoners of war and Asian American activists. A solid majority of 60% wanted to "put the past behind us."
Two-thirds of those polled by the U.S.-Asia Opinion Survey Project in Claremont said it was, nonetheless, important to educate the public on such atrocities as the Japanese army's wartime massacre of civilians in Nanking, China, project founder Alfred Balitzer said Thursday.
The poll found significant age and gender gaps. More women than men favored putting the past behind them. Older people were more likely than younger ones to favor an apology from Japan.
The results suggest that public attitudes are at odds with political and legal efforts that have made California a battleground in the effort to win wartime compensation from Japan. Last year, the state Legislature passed a resolution asking Japan to apologize and pay compensation to victims who allege they were subjected to forced labor, live medical experiments, sexual slavery and other atrocities.
So far, all 18 cases seeking compensation from Japanese firms for alleged slave labor practices have been filed in California, where the statute of limitations for wartime claims was extended last year to 2010. This week, the nation's largest class-action law firm, Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach L.L.P., joined the legal fray by filing two actions in Orange County on behalf of ex-POWs and Chinese victims.
"People don't want to punish Japan and hold people responsible in the courts of law, but they think we need to know about these things," said Balitzer, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
Chinese American activist Ignatius Ding said the poll results underscored the need to redouble efforts to publicize the war crimes through graphic photo exhibits and other activities. "Obviously, the Japanese propaganda machine has prevailed again," said Ding, who directs the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia, an advocacy group based in the Silicon Valley.
Patrick Daniels of Milberg Weiss said the public should understand that the lawsuits are not aimed at the Japanese government, which has paid some state-to-state redress, but at private firms for failing to pay people who toiled for them.
Poll director Ted Gover said the survey found higher levels of awareness about the issue than expected. More than two-thirds of respondents knew about the Bataan Death March, for instance, but 51% did not believe that Japanese firms should be held responsible for compensating the POWs who were sent to coal mines, shipyards and other work sites.
The survey, conducted between Feb. 4 and Feb. 11, questioned 1,000 "high-propensity voters" in California--those who had voted in three of the last four elections. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The aim was to inform policymakers about the views of those most likely to vote, Balitzer said.
"I think elected officials will be a lot less enthusiastic about jumping into this issue, taking sides and proposing legislation--the aim of which will be to slap Japan on the wrist," Balitzer said.
The poll also found that hostile stereotypes of the past have largely faded. The phrase chosen most often to describe the Japanese was "hard-working." But some mistrust still remained, Balitzer said, reflected in a virtually even split in opinion over whether Japan could become a menace if allowed to fully rearm and pursue a foreign policy independent of the United States.