Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cover story in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” may be off newsstands. But his argument that the United States ought to pay reparations to African Americans, less for the injuries of slavery than for ongoing efforts to make it difficult for black families to accumulate wealth, lingers.

(Credit: The Atlantic)
(Credit: The Atlantic)

Coates’s piece traced the debate in West Germany and Israel over the payment of reparations for the harm done by the Holocaust. It is useful to know what that financial compensation did for the peoples of both countries.

But it might also be valuable for us to examine what it does to another country to refuse to pay reparations as part of a larger rejection of the judgment of history. If we cannot recognize the consequences of locking African Americans out of free and full participation in the national economy, perhaps we can acknowledge how another country shaped its own future by editing the narrative of its past. And by studying history, we might  learn how to avoid the mistakes of reparations claims of the past.

I have been reading histories of World War II this summer, and it is striking to recognize the extent to which not paying reparations to individual survivors of Japanese conduct is part of a larger attempt to codify a historical record that minimizes Japanese guilt.

When Japanese forces sunk a U.S. ship, the Panay, in 1937, the Japanese government paid $2.2 million to the U.S. in compensation. But after World War II, Herbert Bix explains in “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,” that “Virtually the only reparations that Japan would ever have to pay—a mere 1.02 billion dollars worth of goods and ‘services’ spread out over many years—were to the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, and (later) South Vietnam.”

In China, pursuing reparations payments might have benefited one side in that country’s ongoing internal conflict more than another.

“Nationalist China chose not to hand over to IPS investigators the vast amount of data on Chinese war casualties that Chiang’s ‘Commission on Reparations’ had been accumulating ever since 1938,” Bix wrote. “Nor did it pursue Japan’s forced recruitment of civilian laborers, the ‘kill all, burn all, steal all’ (sankō sakusen) campaigns in North China, and the use of poison gas. These ‘crimes against humanity’ (with the exception of the last) had taken place mostly in the Communist base areas, so Chiang Kai-shek was not interested in them.”

The organization- and government-level reparations Japan did pay did not always serve their intended purpose.

Writing in the New York Times in 2005, Carlos Conde noted that: “According to [one] study, the reparations ‘provided investment mainly to private-sector projects for reaping short-term profits, leaving long-term profitable key industries with insufficient capital.’ The result is that the Philippines did not develop its industries, a defect whose impact is still felt today. Worse, according to historians, the way the loans and reparations money and goods were utilized ushered in the era of bureaucratic corruption that is now so prevalent here.”

The minimal payment of reparations was part of a larger strategy of managing a reckoning with Japan’s conduct in China and during World War II.

The occupation force led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur decided that it needed to co-opt Emperor Hirohito to validate the changes they were making to Japanese governance and political life. To do so effectively, MacArthur needed Hirohito to appear to be innocent of war crimes. Paying reparations to the individuals injured by decisions Hirohito made and sanctioned would have been an admission of guilt. And, in a reinforcing cycle, preserving the impression of Hirohito’s innocence made it more difficult to consider paying reparations.

“Keeping him on the throne after the defeat, not investigating his role in policy-making, and insulating him from possible trial contributed to a falsification of history,” Bix wrote. “It impeded historical clarification of the decision process leading to war and delayed surrender. It limited the development of Japanese democracy. It made rethinking the lost war and its atrocities difficult, and allowed many people to delay bringing the war to closure.”

World War II historian Max Hastings confirms that sentiment in closing “Retribution,” his account of the end of the campaign in the Pacific.

“I embarked upon this book with a determination to view Japanese wartime conduct objectively, thrusting aside nationalistic sentiments which have clouded the perspective of many British and American writers since 1945,” he wrote, concluding that it was impossible to suggest any equivalence between Japanese and Allied atrocities. “In modern times, only Hitler’s SS has matched militarist Japan in rationalising and institutionalising atrocity. Stalin’s Soviet Union never sought to dignify its great killings as the acts of gentlemen, as did Hirohito’s nation.”

The Soviet Union tried to wrest compensation from Japan anyway, Hastings explains. In China, “the Russians began to dismantle and remove wholesale Manchuria’s industrial plant. They asserted that this was Japanese property, and therefore represented legitimate reparations for the Soviet Union,” and “Hundreds of thousands of Japanese captives such as Souhei Nakamura found themselves labouring for the Russians in Siberia, enduring cold and starvation. They never knew how many of their number died, because as soon as a man became sick he was removed by the guards, never to be seen again.”

Vengeful theft may be a way to balance the ledger of a country’s losses. But it is not the same thing as making individual victims of official policy whole. Those who advocate for reparations in the United States would be wise to explain the distinction, and to emphasize that people who pay reparations have something to gain from that process as well as the people who benefit financially from it. Those who fear reparations might look to the example of Japan. Money is not the only thing it is possible to lose when you are trying to rewrite history.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.