By Richard Javad Heydarian
The 70th anniversary of the end of Second World War has transformed into a critical juncture for Asia, particularly in Northeast Asia where Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula still grapple with a traumatic past. Despite the region’s remarkable economic success in the post-war period, anchored by deepening regional integration and the absence of major conflicts in recent decades, Asia is still haunted by the specter of early-twentieth century conflicts.
This year, China (similar to Russia) is expected to celebrate its World War II victory in an unprecedented fashion, with President Xi Jinping overseeing a grand military parade rather than a solemn ceremony. There has been growing pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reiterate Japan’s apology, particularly as enshrined in the Kono (1993) and the Murayama (1995) statements, for its past atrocities without any equivocation. The word “apology” has gained an unprecedented political relevance across Asia.
At the height of its power, Imperial Japan extended its sphere of influence from Indochina to the Western Pacific, dominating much of the Asia-Pacific region. Imperial Japan’s “rich country, strong army” mantra ended up as (European-style) colonization on steroids. The speed and cruelty of Tokyo’s challenge to Western domination left its neighbors more traumatized than ever. In China, where a resurgent Japan faced the greatest resistance, as many as 15 million people lost their lives, while a staggering 100 million civilians were internally displaced. The Korean Peninsula, meanwhile, was at the receiving end of Japan’s decades-long oppressive colonial rule.
Among the older generation across East Asia, it is far from uncommon to hear about Japanese atrocities during the Second World War. Historical wounds cut deep, yet post-war Japan’s relationship with the wider region is far from monolithic. Though the Philippines was among the greatest victims of Imperial Japan, the two countries have come closer than ever to a full-fledged strategic partnership in recent years, especially in light of their robust economic ties and, even more crucially, shared anxieties over the rise of China.
Forgive, but not Forget
Across Southeast Asia, which was also brutalized by Imperial Japan, the younger generation sees Japan in highly favorable terms, thanks largely to Tokyo’s decisive and constructive role in spurring economic growth and industrialization in the region under the so-called “flying geese phenomenon.” Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power” — the ability of nations to wield influence through attraction rather than coercion — was largely inspired by post-war Japan’s success in rehabilitating its national image by leveraging its technological savvy and cultural pull.
As far as Japan’s national image is concerned, there is obviously a clear North-South divide within East Asia. Japan continues to be seen in more negative terms in China and the Korean Peninsula. According to a Pew survey in 2014, only 22 percent of South Koreans and 8 percent of Chinese citizens had a favorable view of Japan. Now compare this to the hugely favorable view of Japan among major Southeast Asian countries, namely Indonesia (77 percent), Malaysia (75 percent), Vietnam (77 percent), and Thailand (81 percent). In the Philippines, meanwhile, 80 percent of the population is favorably disposed to Japan.
There are a number of reasons to explain such divergence in regional opinion, ranging from the disparities in the level of destruction and violence at the hands of Imperial Japan to the varying cultural dispositions of victim countries and their state policies, particularly the educational curriculum and national narratives on the Second World War.
For instance, there is a robust literature on how China’s post-Cold War “Patriotic Education” program has rekindled lingering anti-Japanese sentiments among Chinese citizens with increased ferocity. Interestingly, during the late-Mao Zedong and early-Deng Xiaoping era, there was a sustained effort by Beijing to put aside historical animosities in order to facilitate better economic and strategic relations with Tokyo.
No wonder among Japanese policymakers there is a sense that leaders in some neighboring countries have been rekindling historical animosities in order to shore up domestic political support, with some complaining about an apology fatigue. As far as the Philippines is concerned, however, the country has adopted a “forgive, but not forget” position vis-à-vis Imperial Japan’s atrocities, paving the way for highly cordial ties in recent decades.
The New Best Friend
Since 2011, Japan and the Philippines have established a de facto alliance amid China’s rising territorial assertiveness. Since his return to power, Abe has tirelessly sought to augment Japan’s defensive capabilities, revisit its pacifist post-war foreign policy, and carve out a new leadership role for his country in Asia. Under his stewardship, Japan has expanded its strategic footprint across Southeast Asia, deepening security ties with likeminded states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which have been resisting China’s territorial ambitions.
Uncertain about the full extent of U.S. commitment, especially in the event of conflict with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the administration of Philippine president Benigno Aquino has progressively diversified the Southeast Asian nation’s security ties, especially with Japan. Not only is Japan the Philippines’ largest source of development aid, it has also provided security aid and military hardware in recent years. While some neighboring countries, including Singapore, have expressed concerns over bouts of “historical revisionism,” particularly top officials’ visit to Yasukuni Shrine, under the Abe administration, the Philippines has openly welcomed a more assertive Japanese foreign policy.
In 2012 Philippine foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario openly declared, “We are looking for balancing factors in the region and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.” Aquino has openly embraced a proactive Japanese foreign policy under Abe, even exploring a possible defense deal that would give Tokyo access to Philippine bases — paving the way for Japanese aerial patrols in the South China Sea.
Yet among Filipinos, there are still lingering concerns over growing ties with Tokyo, with many continuing to demand — especially among surviving victims of Imperial Japan — for sustained and sincere apology as well as compensation from the Japanese leadership. And this is why the Abe administration’s unequivocal apology in its latest statement — acknowledging that Imperial Japan “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war,” using words such as “deep remorse” (tsusetsu na hansei) and “apology” (owabi), and saying “Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past” — was crucial even in the friendliest neighboring countries like the Philippines. The future of Japan and its place in the region is still tied to its past.
Mr. Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in political science at De La Salle University, Manila, and a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.