Saturday, August 22, 2015

Abe treads a fine line on WWII

By Professor Gerry Curtis, Columbia University and APP member
First appeared in EastAsiaForum, 20 August 2015

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II probably satisfies no constituency — not his right wing base, not the political opposition, not the Chinese nor the Koreans. If the US government has any qualms about it, it is keeping them to itself.

But Abe did invoke the four key words of the Murayama Statement— aggression, colonialism, apology, remorse — even if not in first person declaratory sentences. And he did not say anything so outrageous as to make an angry response unavoidable. In this sense Abe dodged a bullet.

If China and South Korea want to improve relations with Japan, the statement gives them enough to work with — it shows appreciation to the Chinese for the magnanimity they showed to Japanese civilians caught up in the war in China, and sympathy for the Chinese victims of the war. It refers to the ill treatment of women — in lukewarm language to be sure, but better than saying nothing. The influence of the prime minister’s advisory panel led by Professor Shinichi Kitaoka is evident throughout the statement, including its admission that Japan fought a wrong war and that political parties were too weak to control the military.

Abe did try to make the case that Japan went down the road it did because the Great Depression and the trade policies of the western countries were strangling the Japanese economy. This implies that in the end going to war was a defensive action.

But at least he didn’t say what the right wing believes and what was best stated by the previous emperor Hirohito in his radio address accepting the surrender terms of the Potsdam Declaration: ‘we cannot [help] but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire toward the emancipation of East Asia’.

Abe referenced the Russo–Japanese war as an inspiration for anti-colonial movements from Asia to Africa, which is entirely true. But he did not pay homage to the right-wing view that Japan’s Greater East Asia War had anything to do with liberating Asian countries from western colonialism. Unfortunately and worryingly, in contrast to the expressions of compassion for Chinese victims of the war, he had virtually nothing to say about the Korean victims of harsh Japanese colonial rule.

It is disappointing that he did not say something about what needs to be done now so that future generations are not ‘predestined’ to engage in unending apologies as he put it. The only way to end demands for apology is for the current generation to apologise in so convincing a manner that attacks on Japan’s lack of repentance lose all credibility.

This is not likely to happen as right-wing self-defined defenders of Japanese national pride can be counted on to find a way to provide ammunition for Chinese and Koreans to continue to demand apologies. He also could have used a better writer or a more skilled editor. He could have said what he said in half as many words and have had more of an impact that way. The statement is painfully repetitive and tedious.

The statement in a certain sense reflects the strength of Japan’s democracy. Abe would not have issued this statement if he were unafraid of how the public and the media would react had he given one more in line with the views of the Liberal Democratic Party’s right wing — views he himself has expressed repeatedly in the past. This statement probably won’t help his poll numbers but it is unlikely to hurt them either. It is a wash. And that is probably true for its impact on relations with China and South Korea as well.

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