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.