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Foreign Policy

Time for Japan to Come to Terms with History

Mar 11 , 2015
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Victory of World War II in the Pacific. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to make a statement on August 15th. An expert panel has held consultation on the wording of the Abe Statement.

The “Abe Statement” is supposed to upstage apologies extended by previous Prime Minister Murayama in 1995, which apologized to all Asian victims of Japanese aggression and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono in 2005, which acknowledged the military’s role in rounding up the “comfort women” to provide sex for troops in wartime brothels.

However, more than six months before its delivery, China, South Korea, the United States, and other countries have respectively urged Japan to uphold the “Murayama Statement” and “Kono Statement.” The preemptive move by the international community indicates its concerns over forthcoming “Abe Statement.”

First, it is dubious whether Abe can sincerely face up to the Japanese history of its wars and colonial rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Abe’s distortion and denial of Japanese history are outrageous. For example, Abe claimed he does not believe Japan’s occupation of other Asian countries during World War II can be considered “invasions.” There are no set international or academic definitions of the word.

Further more, Abe dismissed the Tokyo war crimes trials in the aftermath of World War II as nothing more than victors’ justice. Abe argued that there is no evidence to prove there was coercion of soliciting comfort women.

In 2013, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Class-A war criminals, to falsely beautify Japan’s military invasion and colonization. Abe changed so-called “masochistic” and “biased” textbook descriptions on the 1937 Nanking Massacre and “comfort women” through the revision of manuals and textbook screening guidelines to whitewash Japan’s war atrocities.

In short, Abe’s words and deeds aim to reverse the verdict on Japanese history of aggression.

Second, Abe is ambivalent towards “Tomiichi Statement” and “Kono Statement”. Recently Abe said in a meeting with reporters that he would inherit as a whole the previous statements made by Tomiichi Murayama on the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII and by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on the 60th anniversary, but made no mention at all of “Kono Statement.”

“As a whole,” a phrase that provides great flexibility, could mean comprehensive inheritance or ambiguous inheritance. In other words, it leaves a lot of room for Abe to emasculate the “Murayama Statement” by disagreeing on some details or deviating from the wording of past apologies while upholding the general outline of previous statements.

As for “Kono Statement”, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it would not be changed on one occasion and on another it should be repealed.

Third, Abe may use the statement to promote his revisionist views on history. Abe claimed that he wanted to issue a statement that reflected, “how the Abe government considers the matter,” rather than just using “the wording we have repeated.” In essence, this could imply that instead of addressing historical issues, he may devote most of the statement to highlight “the steps we (Japan) have taken to become a peaceful country, the contributions Japan will make to the Asia-Pacific region and the world.” The “Abe Statement” could turn out to be a declaration on Abe’s “proactive pacifism” rather than a statement on Japan’s remorse and apology.

In fact, Japan has entered a vicious circle of apology, denial and again apology. Since the beginning of 1980′s, the Japanese right-wing has hijacked historical issues. Whenever an apology has been made, it would have been followed by more insane efforts to distort and deny the history of Japanese aggression and more unbridled visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Indeed it has aggravated rather than healed the wounds of war victims, become a stumbling block to the development of friendly relations between Japan and relevant countries in Asia and made Japanese wartime reflection appear insincere.

Can Abe honor “Tomiichi Statement” and “Kono Statement” and break down this vicious circle? The 70th anniversary of the end of WWII offer him both an historical opportunity and a severe challenge. Abe faces two choices: either to continuously deny invasion and “comfort women” and evade responsibility for war crimes or come to terms with Japanese history.

Germany has set a good example and won the respect of its neighbors and the world. Japan should follow suit and avoid historical issues becoming a negative asset to peace and development in the Asia Pacific.

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