Thursday, October 23, 2014
8

Japan and the Politics of Guilt

CANBERRA – Japan is again alienating its neighbors and driving its friends to despair over the issue of accepting responsibility for its wartime aggression and atrocities. With the election of the new government, the voices of denial are heard again at the highest levels, and are resonating with the public, including the young, in ways that would be unthinkable, by contrast, in modern Germany. All of this is fueling nationalist sentiment in China and South Korea, and making even more dangerous the already volatile territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.

It may be, as some Japanese colleagues tell me, that newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, despite his deeply conservative nationalist background and instincts, is ultimately a realist who will do what it takes – no doubt with the help of pressure from the United States – to defuse these tensions. But there are three specific talismanic issues on which he and his colleagues have taken worrying positions, jangling regional nerves.

The first is the long-running saga of an appropriate apology for Japan’s initiation and conduct of aggressive war the years before and during World War II. For many years, the affected countries sought a comprehensive and unequivocal apology; as Australia’s foreign minister from the late 1980’s, I pushed hard for it in Tokyo, as a form of closure that was morally right and in Japan’s own interests. Eventually, on the 50th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama responded with personal language of both “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology.”

Most subsequent leaders have repeated these sentiments in various degrees – albeit never to the complete satisfaction of China or South Korea. But, after his landslide election victory last month, Abe told the newspaper Sankei that he would seek to replace the landmark 1995 statement – “issued by a Socialist prime minister” – with a “forward-looking” statement, the content of which he did not describe.

The second issue is that of a specific apology to the “comfort women” – from many countries, including my own, but especially South Korea – who were sexually enslaved in army brothels. Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono broke the ice in 1993, expressing “sincere apologies and remorse” to all those who had “suffered immeasurable pain.”

But Abe and several of his colleagues have gone on the record over the years – including during Abe’s first term as Prime Minister in 2006-2007 – denying that coercion was involved. In 2007, his national security adviser told a colleague of mine, “All of this is the work of Korean leftists: there’s nothing to it.” Now, in January 2013, Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, has said that experts would be invited to study the basis of Kono’s statement.

Finally, there is the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine to Japanese war dead, which records in its “Book of Souls” 14 A-class war criminals, and contains a museum that glorifies Japan’s conquests as “just wars fought for survival and self-defense” or for the “liberation of Asia.”

Abe has been a regular visitor to Yasukuni. He visited it again last October, after being elected LDP leader, and expressed “bitter grief” during the election campaign that he had not done so during his previous term as Prime Minister. It has been reliably reported that he wants to visit the shrine while in office this time. Fourteen of his 19 cabinet members are reported to belong to a group promoting pilgrimage tours to the site.

Compounding these concerns is evidence that Japanese public opinion is sympathetic toward the positions that Abe has taken or seems to favor. In a Jiji Press opinion poll conducted in January, 56.7% of those surveyed believed that Abe should visit Yasukuni now – up significantly from 2006, when 43% took a similar position.

There are, of course, always two sides to these stories. It is possible to argue – as many Japanese do – that much of the negative reaction by Japan’s neighbors has been driven by cynical nationalist considerations. Campaigners for South Korean comfort women, for example, have often failed to acknowledge the number and intensity of the statements that have been made on this issue over the last two decades, and the amount of compensation on offer. Likewise, China may have set the bar too high concerning the language that it has demanded in any general apology.

But, even before Abe’s latest wavering, there is much more that Japan could have done long ago – and which it should still do – to put its position beyond reasonable criticism. The benchmark 1995 Murayama apology remains a personal one, because the Japanese Diet, then and since, would not agree to anything as strong: a “deep feeling of remorse” was as much as they could muster, and even then 241 members abstained. Moreover, Murayama’s statement referred vaguely to “a certain period in the not-too-distant past,” rather than to specific war years, and others have since resisted phrases – for example, “war of aggression” or “colonial rule” – that Japan’s neighbors have not unreasonably sought.

The more fundamental problem is that Japan seems unable, as a nation, to manage the kind of collective psychological shift that has transformed Germany, with which it is inevitably compared. Apologizing sincerely for the sins and omissions of earlier generations is never easy. Australia had a long national debate before we could say that we were sorry for the horrible past mistreatment of our Aboriginal people, particularly the “stolen generations” of Aboriginal children who were regularly taken from their parents by governments until the 1970’s.

But statesmen, if they are to deserve the name, sometimes must take the politically uncomfortable high ground – and then bring their publics along. Leadership of that quality has been a long time coming in Japan.

Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (8)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedSean Mac

    Japanese government, the aggressor of war-time crime, should have apologized sincerely and unconditionally to its victims long time ago. In his comment, Yoshimichi sounds like an apologizer of Japanese government. Instead of doing the right thing, he placed the blame on the victims. It certainly doesn't make any sense.

  2. CommentedSean Mac

    Japanese government, the aggressor of war-time crime, should have apologized sincerely and unconditionally to its victims long time ago. In his comment, Yoshimichi sounds like an apologizer of Japanese government. Instead of doing the right thing, he placed the blame on the victims. It certainly doesn't make any sense.

  3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    T.Murayam was a leftist member of the now defunct Japan Socialist Party. He was among those who had a dislike of South Korea, taking a fancy to North Korea. Many of them were angry if you said North Korea; you had to say the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. They did not mind if you said America, South Korea or Igirisu (the UK). (The Japan Socialist Party used to see US foreign policy as imperialistic, war-mongering and serving the interests of capitalists. It was sympathetic with the Soviet Union or Communist China or both.)

    Y. Kono as Foreign Minister of the Murayama cabinet was aboard an airplane bound for Bangkok in 1995. It made an emergency landing in Taipei on account of a bad weather. In Bangkok he met with Chinese Foreign Minister Jian Ji-chen. He said promplty and presumably proudly that he had not got even one step out of the plane while in Taiwan. I do not know how the Chinese Minister felt, but from his account of the Japanese Emperor's visit to China in 1992 his Chinese pride must have been a lot tickled.

    In 2001 former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui applied for a visa to come to Japan for medical treatment. Kono as Foreign Minister of another cabinet strongly opposed it. He said that he had dedicated his past thirty years to establishing and promoting amicable relations with China, the visit would seriously harm the relations, and threatend that he would resgin. The Prime Minister overrode him, the visa was issued, and Kono did not quit.

    There have been in China, since 1945 when Japan was defeated or since 1949 when Mao and his army entered Beijing as the new despotic ruler of China, three waves of anti-foreign political movements and mass sentiments.
    The first wave arouse around 1950. This ought to have been anti-Japanese but it was anti-American. The second wave, coming around 1960, again was not anti-Japanese; it was anti-Russian.
    After President Nixon's overture in 1972, Japan and China made it up and signed a peace treaty in 1978, with Japan making apologies. Japan has made indemnities and loan amounting to billions of dollars since, but the Chinese people do know this as they have been kept in the dark about this. Well, then, when was the anti-Japanese campaign?

    The anti-Japanese campaign came up around 1994, for the first time since 1945, started by Chairman Jiang Zemin, as Prof. Ezra Vogel said recently to a Chinese press. The purpose was to restore popular faith in the Communist Party's rule, the faith which had been diminishing and is still diminishing since the introduction of Deng Xiao-ping's policy of "the cat, black or white, is a good cat that kills mice."
    Reportedly, Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng said to Australian Prime Minister Keating, "Japan will be no more in twenty years." It was in 1993. If the Japanese had said like Murayam and Kono, "Thank you very much, Uncle Li," Mr. Evans might have been less reproachful in this article.
    Anyway, the anti-Japanese movements would have been understandable if they had come before the peace treaty of 1978, but as it is the Japanese have every reason now to hold on at least until the year 2013 is over. If anyone is interested in Chinese political culture, I would appreciate if he/she reads my comment to project-syndicate org./Minxin Pei/China in the Eye of the Beholder.

    China has been slapping Japan on the cheek for a long time, and with impunity. An increasingly large number of Japanese have begun at last to question,
    "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
    Or take arms against a sea of trubles
    And by opposing end them?"
    Would Mr. Evans expect the Japanese to turn the other cheek? If we did, would he say, "the Japanese are repentant of their wicked past?"
    Prof. Vogel recently had an interview with Xin Jing Bao (the Beijing News). I understand he said the anti-Japanese camgaign and education in school, introduced by Jiang Zemin in the 1990s, were counter-productive; it gave momentum to rightwing Japanese; China should back down.

    If anyone who happens to be reading this comment is interested in a little deeper analysis of the new Prime Minister Abe's politics than is usually presented by newspapers and TV journalism, I will suggest two specialists: Jennifer Lind/Japan, Never the Normal.
    http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2012/11/30/jennifer-lind-japan-never-the-normal/
    and Shila Smith/Mixed Signals on Japan's Defense,
    http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2013/01/11/mixed-signals-on-japans-Defense/

    Comfort women referred, in South Korea from 1945 to around 1990, to Korean prostitutes who did business with new customers, who took the place of Japanese soldiers. Why were they not liberated soon after Japan's defeat since they had been abducted and forced to work as se slaves? If so, wouldn't a US President and US Congress owe them apologies? Shouldn't Mr. Evans write a commentary condemning the United States Government? Shouldn't Korean residents be allowed to set up statues?

    About forty comments were posted by readers to online Foreign Policy/Josh Rogin/Japanese Comfort Women Deniers Force White House Response:
    http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/06/06/japanese_comfort_women_deniers_force_white_house_response/

    As for the Confucian DNA of Korean and Chinese Japanophobia, I should be very pleased if anyone interested reads my four comments each to project-syndicate.org/commentary/Ian Buruma/East Asia's Nationalist Fantasy Islands and /Han Seun-soo/Heeding History in East Asia.

    I am afraid I have slightly different, though never totally, views about visits to Yasukuni Shrine and foreign policy of Japanese militarism in the 1930s, but I have not time for this. So other time, I hope.

      CommentedSean Mac

      Japanese government, the aggressor of war-time crime, should have apologized sincerely and unconditionally to its victims long time ago. In his comment, Yoshimichi sounds like an apologizer of Japanese government. Instead of doing the right thing, he placed the blame on the victims. It certainly doesn't make any sense.

      CommentedSean Mac

      Japanese government, the aggressor of war-time crime, should have apologized sincerely and unconditionally to its victims long time ago. In his comment, Yoshimichi sounds like an apologizer of Japanese government. Instead of doing the right thing, he placed the blame on the victims. It certainly doesn't make any sense.

      CommentedSean Mac

      Yoshimichi sounds like an apologizer of Japanese government. The question is very simple--Shouldn't Japanese government apologize for its war-time crime unconditionally? Shouldn't an aggressor has every obligation to show sincere remorse to its victim? Japanese government certainly has not done it in a fashion that can make peace with its victims. In order to quiet down any critics and move forward, the best way is to do the right thing as stated above, not to justify your government's war-crime and its subsequent denial (not apologizing properly is a form of denial) by placing the blames on the victims.

  4. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    Has the US ever apologized for using the dishonourable short circuit to murder the inhabitants of entire Japanese cities to end war via blackmail? Let's not be too hypocrite.

  5. CommentedLeo Arouet

    El nacionalismo de Japón, es un nacionalismo a ultranza. En el futuro cercano se prevé que estos sean más acentuados.

Featured