Abe’s WWII balancing act

Author: Amy King, ANU

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender with a statement that simultaneously tried to meet the expectations of conservatives in Japan and the expectations of Japan’s Asian neighbours. There was a risk that, in attempting to satisfy the demands of such different constituencies, Abe would fail to meet any of them. Yet on balance it seems that Abe has satisfied his conservative political audience in Japan, while preventing a serious deterioration in relations with China and South Korea.

In his statement on Friday, Abe repeated the language of past official statements, such as that of Prime Minister Murayama in 1995 by using key phrases such as ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology’ (tsusetsuna hansei to kokoro kara no owabi), ‘invasion’ (shinryaku) and ‘colonial rule’ (shokuminchi shihai). But Abe’s use of the latter two phrases came only within the context of his pledge that Japan would ‘never again’ resort to practices of invasion or colonial rule. Though Abe referred to the ‘immeasurable damage and suffering’ that Japan waged on innocent people at home and abroad, he did not explicitly describe Japan as having been responsible for invasion and colonial aggression in Asia.

In doing so, Abe’s speech has failed to satisfy those on the left in Japan who demanded that he speak frankly about Japan’s history. Abe’s statement also appears to have prompted Emperor Akihito to make his own statement of ‘deep remorse’ for Japan’s history, departing from the emperor’s usual practice. Nevertheless, Abe’s statement has appeased conservative Japanese voices who praised its forward-looking approach and his decision to uphold the Murayama statement.

Notably, Abe’s speech began by seeking to place Japan’s colonial rule and wartime aggression within the context of global history. This directly reflected the views put forward by Abe’s ‘Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and World Order in the 21st Century’. Abe explained that Japan was pushed into colonial aggression and war in Asia because of its need to respond to the threatening colonial practices of the West in the late 19th century, and the protectionist economic blocs established by Western powers in the early 20th century. While there is some force to this depiction of history, it is a one-sided narrative that portrays Japan as the victim rather than the aggressor. It is disappointing that Abe did not address historical Japanese attitudes of superiority towards their Asian neighbours, attitudes that Japan’s leaders used to legitimise their path to colonialism and war.

The response to Abe’s statement from South Korea and China has been muted criticism. Japanese colonialism in Korea received no direct mention in the statement, although Abe did speak obliquely about Japan’s use of ‘comfort women’, by referring to the ‘women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured’. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has stated that Abe’s speech ‘did not quite live up to our expectations’. Nevertheless, President Park went on to commend Abe for making it clear that Japan’s ‘traditional position centring on apology and remorse will remain unshakable in the coming years’.

In China, official criticism of Abe’s speech has also been restrained. Xinhua news described Abe’s statement as ‘lacking sincerity’ and criticised Abe for ‘beautifying’ the history of the Meiji era. Xinhua also criticised Abe’s statement that future generations of Japanese should not be ‘predestined to apologise’. But, in contrast to past practice, official media has not encouraged popular anti-Japanese protest. Instead, media reports in the lead up to Abe’s speech sought to foster calm, rational responses by Chinese netizens to the Japan history issue.

Moreover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response has been carefully stated so as to avoid inflaming anti-Japanese sentiment and bilateral tensions in the China–Japan relationship. The Chinese Foreign Ministry merely reiterated past statements about the importance of ‘looking at history squarely’ and will have been pleased that Abe’s statement repeated this phrase almost verbatim (‘kako no rekishi ni masshōmen kara mukiawanakereba narimasen’). More significantly, in response to the 15 August visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine by a number of Japanese cabinet members, the foreign ministry noted China’s ‘strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition’ but did not condemn Japan or urge retaliation.

This is likely the best Abe could have hoped for. China will not allow Japan to forget ‘the history issue’ because remembering this history is simultaneously a way of bolstering the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and delegitimising Japan’s goal of playing a greater security role in Asia.

Abe’s statement on World War II came far closer to an official apology than most Japan-watchers expected. It has also avoided further harming the China–Japan relationship. Yet in Japan important historical blind spots remain; in China there is a strong desire to keep alive memories of Japanese colonial rule and aggression in Asia. The history issue is here to stay.

Amy King is a lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

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