Japanese should embrace activism as apology

Author: Akiko Takenaka, University of Kentucky

15 August 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of Emperor Hirohito’s historic speech of surrender ending the Asia Pacific theatre of World War II. Speculation about what Abe will say on this year’s anniversary has been more intense than in previous years due to the prime minister’s nationalistic agenda. His statement will certainly tread a delicate balance between appealing to domestic constituencies and international audiences. But the words uttered are unlikely to have much impact beyond raising some voices of discontent.

Recent prime ministers’ statements marking the anniversary have all been compared to Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 statement. In that statement, the then-prime minister referred to Japan’s ‘colonial rule and aggression’ that caused ‘tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations’, expressing his ‘deep remorse’ and ‘heartfelt apology’. Murayama’s statement has since become a standard of sorts, and, for the most part, official comments by the Japanese government have referenced and acknowledged it.

When Murayama issued his statement in the mid-1990s, the audience included a significant number of people who had experienced and survived the war, or those who had personal relationships with the war generation. Sincere apologies that included acknowledgement of specific wrongdoings could still be considered a concerted effort toward reconciliation.

But in the two decades since the Murayama statement, war apology has become a more complex and intensely politicised issue, as the number of people who directly experienced the impact of the war has sharply declined in both Japan and its former victim nations.

Few Japanese today, especially of younger generations, personally know a war survivor. The ‘Asia Pacific War’ has become an event of the distant past. Yet, they live in a society still struggling with war-related issues. Opinion polls have often demonstrated the Japanese people’s ambivalent relationship with their wartime past, without a consistent majority that recognises Japan’s war responsibility. The issue of war responsibility and apology has become deadlocked domestically, and as a result has often aggravated Japan’s international relations in Asia.

But there is possibility for change from within. Following the recent passage of security bills through the Japanese House of Representatives, the approval rating of the Abe cabinet plummeted. According to a Mainichi Shimbun poll on 17–18 July 2015, it is as low as 35 per cent. In the same poll, 64 per cent feared that the increased capacity of the Japan Self-Defense Forces would result in Japan becoming embroiled in another war.

Here, then, is an opportunity for another strategy: a bottom-up approach that does not rely on symbolic gestures at the state level.

In the context of the recent political developments, much has been made of Japanese university students, such as the SEALDs group, who have begun protesting against the Abe administration. They have surrounded the Diet building and the prime minister’s residence, organised sizable marches in a number of major cities, and congregated for meetings and rallies.

At the moment, the focus of these young people is on domestic issues that personally affect them and their loved ones. Implicit behind their oft-used chant of ‘senso iranai!’ (don’t need war) is the subject ‘I’ or ‘we’. We don’t want to go to war, goes their cry; we don’t want our loved ones to go to war.

Faced with the possibility of an increased role for Japan in international warfare, it is not too difficult a task for these young people to imagine a scenario in which they personally are in danger of experiencing war and its effects. Perhaps they also have read or heard first-hand narratives of wartime suffering: of air raids and atomic bombs over Japanese lands. They are taking to heart the primary lesson of the Japanese past that the war generations have tried to communicate — that war causes suffering and should be avoided.

It certainly is a commendable effort. But it is not enough.

In light of the upcoming seventieth anniversary, anti-war protests should take a more inclusive approach that considers the pain of others, of people who might become enemies if Japan were to take up arms. This is especially so given the ‘collateral damage’ to innocent civilians that modern warfare increasingly produces. Most importantly, this consideration for the ‘pain of others’ should include not only what could happen in the future, but also the injuries that have already been inflicted in the past.

If Japanese people refuse to take up arms because they do not want to go to war, or because they do not want their loved ones to go to war, they can and should extend this principle to potential adversaries. War should also be avoided because war inflicts injury on the citizens of other nations. And by extension, Japanese people should not go to war so that they do not have to injure citizens of other nations, as was the case during the 15 years between 1931 and 1945.

An anti-war protest by Japanese young people that includes such demands would be a much more powerful statement of acknowledgment and responsibility than any words a sitting prime minister could utter.

Akiko Takenaka is associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar, University of Hawaii Press, 2015.

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