Japan must face history to move forward

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to make a statement commemorating the end of World War II on 14 August 2015 — 70 years short a day since the day Japan officially announced its acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration.

Abe has long stated that he wants to assert Japan’s positive and creative policies and its vision for the 21st Century in his statement. To that end, few people inside or outside Japan have any objections.

A girl offers a prayer for A-bomb victims before lanterns placed at the Peace Memorial Park in Nagasaki, Japan's southern island of Kyushu on 8 August 2015. (Photo: AAP)

But the occasion also inescapably requires Japan to look back on its wartime history. In the last two decades, both former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama (on the 50th anniversary) and former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (on the 60th) made statements of commemoration. In particular, the 1995 Murayama Statement expressed Japan’s humility and desire to strive for reconciliation. The key words used in the statement — ‘aggression’ (shinryaku), ‘colonial rule’ (shokuminchi shihai) and ‘apology’ (owabi) — have since become the basis of all reconciliation talks with neighbours China, South Korea, and North Korea, as well as further afar with countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States.

In consequence, attention inside and outside Japan is closely focused on what Abe will say regarding Japan’s wartime history.

Abe has already given many hints on his views. On 22 April 2015 at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Abe stated in his bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping: ‘the Abe Cabinet upholds the position on the recognition of history outlined by the previous administrations in its entirety, including the Murayama Statement and the Koizumi Statement’.

But this did not bring closure to the debate domestically or internationally. The original Japanese of ‘in its entirety’ was zentai toshite, which can also be translated as ‘on the whole’. Abe has also stated that he does not intend to repeat the key words of the Murayama Statement. The inevitable question is whether Abe is really upholding the key concepts of the Murayama Statement or simply paying lip service to them.

One way to overcome this philological debate would be to simply cut the phrase zentai toshite and state that he upholds Murayama Statement. Abe has already expressed views very close to this in his speech to a special joint sitting of the US Congress on 29 April. There Abe stated that: ‘post-war, we started out our path bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse over the war. Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by the previous ministers in this regard’.

Those close to Abe have hinted that he may express his statement personally as prime minister rather than collectively as a cabinet decision. This approach would not position Abe to say anything which contradicts the Murayama Statement and would leave it as the official position of the Japanese government on all issues related to historical memory.

But Abe’s historical baggage means he will still be surrounded by questions. His past words have planted misgivings among the Chinese, South Koreans, and Americans, as well as Japanese interlocutors. Hence, if Abe fails to explicitly state all three of Murayama’s key words that may be taken as evidence that he does not acknowledge Japanese aggression in China or the pain caused by colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. And even if he repeats his expressions of remorse and repentance, he may be criticised by Japan’s neighbours for not being prepared to apologise.

In terms of the legal settlement of Japan’s transgressions during World War II, by accepting the judgments of the Tokyo Trial (as per Article 11 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and in other relevant treaties), all issues have been settled except for the normalisation of relations with North Korea and the conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia. But all states engaged in the war required further moral and historical judgment of their own. Japan was no exception. The Murayama Statement was the result of Japan’s soul-searching after San Francisco.

The best position Abe could take would be to uphold that position unambiguously. This would keep him at the helm of Japan’s moral authority. It would also give him the strongest strategic position to deal with the remaining issues which he is still expected to resolve, particularly in relation to historical memory and territorial issues.

Looking forward, Japan needs to establish a ‘road map’ to resolve these issues. Abe’s 70th anniversary commemoration speech will be the first step in this road map. The more humble it is, the more powerful it will be in enabling further steps. After this first step, Japan should address the Yasukuni Shrine controversy, the so-called ‘comfort women’ issue and the Takeshima/Dokdo territorial dispute with South Korea. Japan must then tackle the higher hurdles: forced labour during World War II, Japan’s territorial disputes with Russia particularly after the escalation of Ukrainian problem and, finally, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with China. Only then will it realise the full potential of its relations with its neighbours in Northeast Asia.

Kazuhiko Togo is the director of the Institute of World Affairs and Professor of International Politics, Kyoto Sangyo University. He formerly Ambassador of Japan to the Netherlands.  Details of steps outlined in this article are explained further in the author’s book (in Japanese), Diplomacy in Crisis: The Prime Minister’s Commemoration Statement, Historical Recognition and Territorial Problems (Kadokawa Shinsho, July 2015).