The ghost of historical revisionism in contemporary Japan

Author: Koichi Nakano, Sophia University

The politics of historical memory is a key factor shaping the international relations of East Asia today. Controversy surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine and the ‘comfort women’ (sex slaves) issue has had far-reaching foreign policy implications for Japan’s relations with its East Asian neighbours. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s Japan pursued a liberal internationalist orientation which included significant political efforts to reach settlements (if not solutions) on historical issues with China and South Korea.

When Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro made an official visit to Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August 1985, China lodged a strong protest, and a full-blown diplomatic dispute ensued. Nakasone concluded at the time that, for the sake of Japan’s ambition for a greater role in world affairs, harmonious relations with key neighbours were essential. Nakasone decided to stop visits to Yasukuni Shrine at this juncture, despite his visit representing the culmination of a concerted effort by Japanese conservatives in the post-war period to change the constitutional interpretation of the separation of religion and state to enable the prime minister’s official visit to the shrine. Nakasone and his associates tried to de-enshrine the 14 Class-A war criminals from Yasukuni, but the shrine authorities rejected the idea as out of hand. Thus, from the mid-1980s, a de facto settlement of the Yasukuni Shrine emerged: officially or unofficially, the Japanese prime minister would not visit the shrine.

The trajectory of the ‘comfort women’ issue was slower to unfold, but when it finally came to the fore in the early 1990s, the Japanese government attempted to settle the issue by delivering the 1993 Kono Statement. It acknowledged state involvement as well as coercion had underpinned the system of military brothels, and offered apologies to the victims. Though ultimately unsuccessful in resolving the issue, the Asian Women’s Fund was set up in 1995. The Murayama Statement, apologising for the suffering Japan had caused during the war, was also issued — coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. Japanese history textbooks also started to include references to ‘comfort women’ in the mid-1990s.

As the bubble economy inflated Japan’s economic might and boosted its self-confidence, the country’s ruling elites were keen to lift the post-war ban on playing an active security role overseas. It was in this context that even such nationalists as Nakasone accepted that securing the understanding, if not active support, of Japan’s neighbours and former victims — most notably China and South Korea — was a precondition to the realisation of their new political ambitions on the world scene.

But Japan’s liberal internationalist period was followed by a revisionist backlash starting in the mid-1990s which challenged and undermined the fragile compromise with Japan’s neighbours. A new cohort of politicians came to power who were born after World War II and building their political careers in the post-Cold War era. Under their leadership a nationalist and revisionist orientation gained prominence. The current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was a standard-bearer of this new creed of politicians who challenged the post-war conventions and taboos and questioned existing settlements and accommodations with Japan’s neighbours.

Junichiro Koizumi (prime minister from 2001-06) destroyed the Nakasone settlement of the Yasukuni issue with his yearly visits to the shrine throughout his time in office. Abe, who replaced Koizumi in September 2006, refrained from following in his footsteps, but later expressed strong regrets that he did not visit the shrine during his first stint as prime minister and made an abrupt visit to Yasukuni on 26 December 2013. These moves encouraged the right-wing to turn up the volume, and a backlash started again against the Kono Statement. Abe to date has made various moves to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the Kono Statement, while superficially upholding it as the official government position.

The liberal internationalist orientation towards resolution now seems absent among the current Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and, as such, in Japanese politics as a whole. The competitive two-party system that was promised when the first-past-the-post system was introduced in 1994 has resulted in a new one-party dominance. It is different from the old one-party dominance in that there is no established opposition party to speak of this time, thereby allowing the LDP to indulge in internationally damaging revisionism in the absence of any check from the pacifist left. In view of a serious lack of checks, the ghost of historical revisionism is likely to continue to haunt East Asia and jeopardise a cool-headed approach to diplomacy and security.

Koichi Nakano is a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

A version of this article was first published here on The Asan Forum.

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