Another anniversary, another round of talking past each other

I am no longer watching GATE, but since related issues have cropped up in the discussions for a number of shows I’ve seen over the past year, it seemed fitting to interrupt my regular postings to write about something else that I’m invested in: Japan’s international relations.

The reactions to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement commemorating the end of the Pacific War have surely surprised no one. The White House welcomed “his expression of deep remorse for the suffering Japan caused,” but Beijing and Seoul criticised it for diluting the language of earlier apologies, particularly the Murayama and Kono statements that more directly referred to what Japan did to the peoples of East Asia. The early signs are that the history problems that have plagued the region are nowhere closer to being solved. And once again, most commentators are laying the blame primarily on Japan, arguing that it needs to sincerely acknowledge the past and offer genuine apologies and reparations.

Abe at the memorial ceremony in Hiroshima on August 6. (Image from Reuters)

However, the picture that many of these critics are presenting is incomplete. Although it in no way lessens Japan’s guilt, the US, China and South Korea are not free of ‘wrongdoing’ in this confrontation over historical representations of the war. Overcoming this issue will require that all four parties acknowledge their own contributions to the problems, and also that they work together to overcome it. Unfortunately, this does not look likely in the near or even mid-term future.

One angle of the historical issues that is often ignored by the overseas media is the domestic one. In particular, a closer look at the debate over the ‘comfort women’ in Japan can help contextualise the controversial statements that Japanese politicians often make. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Asahi Shimbun was the key newspaper that drove the story. However, its coverage centred around the flawed testimony of Seiji Yoshida. Although doubts about his accounts of kidnapping Korean women for Japanese military brothels were first raised in 1992, it was only last year that the Asahi acknowledged its poor reporting. This was welcomed by the revisionist faction that has long fought against such negative representations of Japan.

This does not mean that the revisionist version of the story is correct. Although it might never be proven that the Imperial Japanese military forcibly kidnapped women, historians such as Yoshiaki Yoshimi and even the Japanese government itself have long established that it was involved in setting up and running these brothels. The problem, however, is that foreign countries continue to refer to Yoshida’s testimony. This makes it difficult for Tokyo to unconditionally accept the position taken by South Korea, for example, without a damaging domestic response. The equivocation that results then feeds accusations from Japan’s immediate neighbours that its leaders are once again attempting to deny history.

This historical issue can be explored in other areas as well, such as education, trade and diplomacy. For example, most casual observers are likely to have heard of how Japan continues to deny or downplay its wrongdoings in its history textbooks. However, a look at Chinese textbooks shows a similarly biased version of history. Scholars like Susan Shirk observe that the CCP has purposely constructed Japan as an enemy to help solidify its own domestic legitimacy. In the case of South Korea, Japanese media was banned until the 1990s or thereabouts. And even today, the many attempts that Japan has made at apologising are typically dismissed by both these countries as being insincere and insufficient. Given this imbalance of criticism, it is not surprising that the gap between the three publics over ‘whether Japan has apologised enough‘ has been increasing over the last few years.

The US role in this issue is a legacy of both the atomic bombings that ended the war and the Occupation. Those critical of the manner in which America has ‘had its way’ in the post-war world are particularly quick to point out how the US still controls much of Japan’s behaviour, one of the more recent examples being how actions were allegedly taken to undermine the Democratic Party of Japan’s attempts to reach out to China. It should be noted that this is not the entire picture either–I cannot go into the details, but several people I have spoken with have mentioned that powerful Japanese people have a way of making home-grown desires appear as if they are from the US. Research has also shown that the lack of a NATO equivalent in East Asia stems at least partially from the reluctance of post-war Japanese leaders to regard their fellow Asians as equals.

Abe was contrasted with Hatoyama, who paid his respects in South Korea. However, having been subject to heavy pressure from the US over the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, Hatoyama resigned without achieving any advances on this issue…

However, Japan’s reticence over its wartime behaviour is incredibly similar to America’s take on its own history with Japan. For example, when the Smithsonian tried to bring exhibits from Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb museum over to the US for a joint 50th anniversary exhibition, the fuss that the US public kicked up about it meant that the Enola Gay bomber would be the centrepiece of an celebration of ‘the triumph over the enemy’. Relics that humanised the Japanese–such as a misshapen metal lunchbox–had to remain hidden from an American public that was taught that the atomic bombs were heroic inventions that ended the war. There are other views within the country, but acknowledgement from American leaders that they went too far with strategic bombing would allow them greater moral legitimacy in the debate over Japan’s views of history. Similarly, few US politicians appear to remember that the revisionist strand that now dominates Japanese politics has its origins in the flawed Tokyo Trials and the ‘Reverse Course‘ during the Occupation, when SCAP released many Imperial Japanese officials that it had originally intended to sue for war crimes. Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, numbered among them. This man, who would become Prime Minister in 1957, was in fact one of the elites responsible for the takeover of Manchuria during the war. Whilst I doubt we will ever hear his true thoughts about this, it would not be surprising if Abe indeed truly believed that ‘Japan only did what it had to, and it is unfair to keep criticising Japan alone for actions that were widespread at the time’.

I am not trying to be a Japan apologist. Abe’s own views on the war appear to be revisionist in nature, and are one of the reasons that critics regard his statements of remorse as being insincere. It is difficult to imagine the standoff being resolved as long as Abe’s faction of the LDP remains in power; unfortunately, there does not appear to be any other party that can take its place in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, criticism that focuses just on Japan without acknowledging the problems associated with the actions and views of these other parties will only contribute to a worsening spiral in this game of historical revisionism. China, South Korea and the US are all going to have to work with Japan if they want to resolve these increasingly intractable problems of history.

Further reading, for the interested:
1. The Economist on East Asia and the ghosts of WWII
2. The Japan Conference (aka Nippon Kaigi) on wikipedia – follow the links in the references
3. Sheila Smith on Japan’s New Politics and the US-Japan Alliance
4. Mike Mochizuki and Michael O’Hanlon on “How to Calm Asia’s History Wars

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

3 Responses to Another anniversary, another round of talking past each other

  1. Robert Black says:

    Americans aren’t monolithic in the way they regard Hiroshima. Like everything else in this day and age, it’s highly polarized, with one group cheering the triumph over an enemy and the other side lamenting the huge loss of life. The former group is just a lot noisier, which explains what happened at the Smithsonian.

    We had a priest at my church who was a World War II veteran, and he offered this sermon on the Hiroshima 50th anniversary. I have never forgotten it.


    • karice says:

      Thank you for the link, and I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to imply that all or even most Americans held such views – just that politicians are reluctant to make official statements contradicting them for (usually) domestic political reasons. I’ve added a couple of sentences that hopefully reflect that.

      I think one of the problems is that people have an inclination to cherish those closer to us more than the strangers that live halfway around the world. So when you have an event or decision that ‘saved many of us’ even at the expense of even more ‘others’, it’s difficult for leaders to present it as anything other than a triumph, especially when a large part of their support base is made up of people who are grateful for that salvation. I wonder if there is some way for leaders to acknowledge that what they did caused great suffering, even if their predecessors might have felt that they had no other choice at the time…


    • sikvod00 says:

      It’s usually the noisier group that gets their message heard, especially by the mainstream media. 😦

      We need to remember, not to stir up our guilt, but so that we will not minimize, we will not be tempted to glamorize what we as a nation believed it was necessary to do to fight and win that war. Without remembering there cannot be any hope.

      Thanks for the link. Clarke’s words here ring true even if I don’t consider myself religious. Admitting that your nation caused great suffering to others, even if it was a necessary act to win a war is out of the league of most politicians. It takes subtlety and nuance to express such sentiment. And even then, you’ll still be accused of being anti-American or an apologist. So you also need courage.

      I still think that this White House has the greatest chance of doing that, at least when it comes to remembering the foreign lives lost in war.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: