By Michael Green
Why was Abe’s statement so significant?
August 15 marks the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. This landmark date comes at a time of growing nationalistic sentiment across Northeast Asia and also coincides with the 100th anniversary of Japan’s “Twenty One Demands” of China in 1915, which sparked anti-Japanese sentiment in that country, as well as the 50th anniversary of Japan’s normalization of relations with the Republic of Korea in 1965. The statement also comes in the midst of intense debate within Japan over legislation tabled by the government to strengthen Japan’s ability to exercise the right of collective self-defense and deepen military cooperation with the United States, Australia and other like-minded countries as the security environment in East Asia becomes more challenging.
What did Abe say on the 70th anniversary?
The August 14 statement was issued by the Japanese cabinet, but was personally drafted in large part by the Prime Minister himself. Speculation about the statement in Japan and the region centered on three issues.
The first issue was whether the Prime Minister would refer to Japan’s “aggressive” war and “colonization” in Asia. Abe and other conservatives in Japan have raised questions in the past about whether the rendering of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal that Japan was guilty of aggressive war was in fact consistent with international law – or whether Japan should be singled out given the turbulent wars and colonialization committed by other states in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In the August 14 statement Abe did, in fact, refer to both “aggression” and “colonization,” concluding after a description of the descent of the international system into war and Japan’s own transformation into a “challenger of the international system”:
“Incident, aggression, war — we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. We shall abandon colonial rule forever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world.”
The second area of focus was whether the Prime Minister would officially apologize for Japan’s actions seventy years ago. In recent Pew polling, 56 percent of Japanese citizens say they have apologized enough, while polling by Japanese news organizations suggests opinion in Japan is more even split on the question. Japanese leaders have officially apologized or expressed remorse at least fifty times since the war, beginning with Emperor Hirohito in 1945, and including Abe’s own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, in 1957 (decades before Germany’s own official expressions of apology). Abe acknowledged domestic sentiment in Japan when he stated that: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” but noted that Japan must “squarely face the history of the past.” Abe pointed out that Japan had repeatedly expressed “feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology” and vowed that “such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.” This fell short of a renewed apology demanded in Seoul, Beijing and on the left within Japan, but reiterated the Abe government’s pledge not to revise the 1993 apology for the treatment of “comfort women” by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono and the1995 apology on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war made by Socialist Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama –both of which riled young conservative backbenchers who now make up the core of the current cabinet.
The third major issue was whether Abe would express sincere remorse for the past. Here the Prime Minister surpassed all previous statements by other post-war Japanese leaders, stressing “atonement,” the “countless lives lost” in Japan, Korea, China and Southeast Asia, the suffering of allied POWs, and “women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured.” Abe emphasized his personal role as Prime Minister, stating that:
“On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.”
Though the statement did not go into the specifics of the pre-war government’s exact culpability with respect to the comfort women or other dark chapters in Japan’s past, neither did it leave any of these dark chapters untouched.
Will this resolve historical grievances in Asia?
As Japan and China normalized relations in the 1970s, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai argued that it would take at least three generations to move beyond the hatred caused by the war. He may have been overly optimistic, though that third generation has yet to come of age. The initial Chinese media reaction to the Abe statement was to acknowledge the expressions of deep remorse, but criticize the notion that Japan must not continue issuing renewed apologies to Asia. Jiang Zemin and other Chinese leaders have explicitly stated that Japan must apologize in perpetuity. In part this reflects the deep scars in China’s memory from the war, but the concept of Japan as a perpetual sinner and outlier in international affairs is also closely related to the Chinese narrative about which nation should rightfully lead in Asia. This negative portrayal of Japan has also been a central part of the Chinese Communist Party’s post-Tiananmen patriotic education campaign and underlies current efforts to blunt Japan’s efforts to play a more robust role in the security of East Asia under the umbrella of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Chinese officials have been increasingly critical of U.S. alliances in Asia and as Chinese president Xi Jinping argued last year, “to beef up and entrench a bilateral alliance against a third party is not in the interests of peace and stability.” All of that said, Sino-Japanese rivalry has generally stabilized since Abe and Xi held a bilateral summit last November and there is even speculation that Abe might attend the margins of Chinese celebration of victory of Japan in September.
The Korean media also acknowledged Abe’s statements of remorse but criticized the lack of a renewed apology. Abe and Korean president Park Geun-hye have not had a bilateral summit and the history issue continues to confound political relations between these two U.S. allies. Korea has less geostrategic incentive to isolate Japan, given the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance to Korea’s own security and shared values with Japan as a developed democracy. In 2014 CSIS polling on the strategic elites’ views of future order in Asia, Korea and Japan tracked more closely than any other two countries surveyed. However, the domestic politics of the issue in Korea are extremely difficult, particularly for President Park Geun-hye, whose father, Park Chung-hee, is accused by the left in Korea of being a Japanese collaborator. In Japan as well, there is growing frustration with Korea across the political spectrum, particularly since Korean courts began waving the bilateral settlement reached under Park’s father in 1965 and ruling that victims of forced labor have the right to sue Japanese companies. This dynamic is contrary to Japanese, Korean and U.S. interests, but shows no immediate signs of abating. Whether the August 14 statement will help on balance, remains to be seen, though it probably did not damage the prospect for improved ties.
In South and Southeast Asia, Japan enjoys an exceptionally positive reputation today. Polls last year indicated that over 90 percent of citizens in the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have “positive” or “very positive” views of Japan. U.S. and Australian views of Japan are also at an all-time high in some polls. Increasingly, countries like the Philippines and Vietnam are looking to Japan as a reliable partner as China’s own foreign policy turns more assertive. India has never held Japan in a negative light because of the war like other countries in the region, and is set to continue strengthening bilateral ties.
Will this be sustained in Japanese domestic politics?
Abe’s statement is likely to play well with the center in Japan. No major political analyst in Tokyo expected the prime minister to apologize and few demanded that. The left will demand more and the far right will be disappointed. The references to aggression and colonization and the multiple expressions of remorse were more robust than many will have expected. In part, the August 14 statement reflects the Prime Minister’s own intellectual journey on the issue since he became Prime Minister for the second time in December 2012. The relatively robust statement probably also reflects the unexpected difficulty the government has had passing the new defense-related legislation in the Diet. The pacifist-leaning Komeito agreed to the August 14 statement as a member of Abe’s coalition and cabinet. This will help to ease passage of the defense legislation in the weeks ahead.
From the beginning there has been a debate about whether Abe is more of a nationalist or a pragmatic strategist. The August 14 statement points clearly to the latter.
Dr. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS. He is also an associate professor of international relations and director for Asian studies at Georgetown University.