Walking on Eggshells: Japan Confronts Its World War II Legacy
BERLIN—On September 3, when China commemorates the “Victory Day of Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression” with a military parade, Japan’s past war crimes will again be at the center of international attention. Putting Japan on the defensive is exactly what the Chinese leadership intended. A highly anticipated statement made by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in August on the date of Japan’s surrender illustrated that the terms of reconciliation in Japan have a long and heavy history.
Japan’s government must contend with a lack of domestic consensus about Japan’s war-time past. A majority of Japanese stands by the public expressions of remorse about Japan’s war atrocities and previous apologies issued by former prime ministers. But Abe belongs to a strong group inside the governing Liberal Democratic Party whose members often minimize Japan’s war crimes and pay regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the spirits of convicted Japanese war criminals are venerated alongside the rest of Japan’s war dead.
At the same time, Abe confronts a foreign policy conundrum. Japan’s most important ally, the United States, has shown little patience for Japanese revisionism. South Korea is distrustful of anything Abe might say and believes the Japanese do not fully appreciate the plight of Korea, which was colonized and suffered from Japan’s wartime system of sex slavery. China proved poised to once again highlight its claim that Japan has never dealt properly with its wartime past, although this is a topic that does not yet resonate well internationally. It is mostly China’s allies that will attend the military parade on September 3 at the presidential level: President Vladimir Putin, and the leaders of Belarus, Pakistan, Venezuela, Sudan, and Myanmar. The United States and most EU countries will send diplomats from their Beijing embassies (the only EU head of state to attend is Czech President Milos Zeman).
It would have been unrealistic to expect Abe to have made a historical declaration on August 15. His own stated ambition was to make a “future-oriented” statement, and he succeeded in performing that difficult tightrope act. He did not try to find new phrasing for another apology, which would only have caused new controversies over its extent and invited comparisons with previous Japanese government statements. But he fully indorsed as “unshakeable” all those issued by his predecessors. He did not repeat definitions of Japan’s war crimes either, for the same reason, but did describe their consequences: “Our country inflicted immeasurable damage and suffering,” he said. He also confessed “profound grief and eternal, sincere condolences…deep remorse and heartfelt apology.”
Abe’s historical framing of the war constitutes the more remarkable part of his statement. He describes Japan’s successful resistance to Western colonialism in the 19th century and how Japan isolated itself from the international community after World War I, eventually leading the country into war and suffering. As remarkable, and moving at the same time, is Abe’s repeated expression of gratitude to Japan’s former enemies (including the Chinese) who, “transcending hate,” enabled Japan to return into the fold of the international community and thus made possible the country’s post-war development on the basis of values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and peaceful conflict resolution. Echoing former German President Richard von Weizsaecker’s speech of 1985, Abe emphasized that the post-war generations should not need to repeat apologies, yet have to continue to carry the responsibility for their country’s past.
In parts, Abe’s declaration resembled a walk on eggshells. Certainly it had its weaknesses. Japan’s colonialism in Korea and its system of sex slavery are both alluded to only circuitously. The declaration’s strength, on the other hand, is that it is indeed future-oriented in deriving a responsibility to safeguard values from Japan’s war history. The majority of Japan’s people seem to approve of this and support the prime minister’s effort. Surveys suggest that 44 percent found his declaration positive compared to 37 who did not, and Abe’s popularity rating has since risen 5.5 percent. Public opinion thus reflects the fact that the prime minister performed a successful balancing act.
It should have come as no surprise that China’s official news agency complained about “linguistic tricks,” “rhetorical twists,” and Abe’s “adulterated apology,” while the South Korean media found the declaration “disappointing.” This is not just nitpicking. Considering the backdrop of Abe’s domestic situation, there is some validity to these criticisms. It will take Japanese efforts to build on Abe’s statement to turn it into a basis for improving the country’s relations with its two neighbors. As the Chinese decision to hold a victory parade for the first time in 70 years indicates, this will be an uphill effort. There is much to do, but then Japan also has much going for it. It is this crucial point that the White House drew attention to in its comment on Abe’s declaration: “For 70 years, Japan has demonstrated an abiding commitment to peace, democracy, and the rule of law. This record stands as a model for nations everywhere.”
Photo Credit: Gregola S
Volker Stanzel, a senior advisor to the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, served as Germany’s ambassador to Japan and China.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.