Argument

Shinzo Abe’s Sorry Apology

Japan's prime minister needs to actually apologize for his country’s crimes.

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo (C) speaks to a joint meeting of the US Congress while flanked by Vice President Joseph Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) in the House chamber of the US Capitol April 29, 2015 in Washington, DC.The Prime Minister and his wife are on an official visit to Washington. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It could have been a real victory lap. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s late April visit to the United States could have epitomized the great success of postwar U.S.-Japan relations, capped by the affirmation of an ever-closer military alliance, the promise of the major trade pact the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Abe’s address to a joint session of Congress — the first by a Japanese leader. After all, the new bilateral defense guidelines allow Japan to take a much more assertive role in U.S.-led military operations in the region and beyond. In his historic speech, Abe did his best to underscore the trade pact’s long-term strategic value.

But instead, Abe’s visit will likely grow into a diplomatic irritant for U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration because of the prime minister’s omissions and equivocations related to Japan’s war crimes against other Asian countries in the first half of the 20th century. With many in South Korea and China — both victims of Japanese imperialism — paying attention to the prime minister’s congressional address, Abe assiduously avoided terms like “colonial rule,” “invasion,” and “heartfelt apology” — the crux of previous high-profile apologies by his predecessors. He made no mention of the Japanese coercion of tens of thousands women into sexual slavery, the victims of which are known by the grotesque Japanese appellation “comfort women.” Official reactions to the speech, as expected, ranged from “very regrettable” in Seoul, to admonition to reflect upon Japan’s “history of aggression” in Beijing, to condemnation of Abe and his supporters as “hooligans” and “psychopath[s]” in Pyongyang.

Abe’s latest historical revisionism will only further strain the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul triangle and invite exploitation by Pyongyang and Beijing. Japan and South Korea, two U.S.-dependent democracies aligned together against North Korea and its patron, China, remain at loggerheads over Tokyo’s backsliding on history. Japan’s increasingly assertive claim on Dokdo, an island administered by South Korea, further muddies the regional waters. By sanitizing systemic war crimes, Abe has done more to alienate Seoul, feed Beijing’s propaganda machine, and create strategic problems for Washington than any of his predecessors in the post-Cold War era.

Unfortunately, Abe’s latest insult is nothing new. Since taking office in December 2012, Abe has visited and sent gifts to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, has ordered a special government panel to re-examine Japan’s 1993 apology on the “comfort women” issue, and has pounced on Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun‘s retraction of a series of articles on enforced sexual slavery published in the 1980s and 1990s, in order to deny the coercive nature of the system. He also sent a special envoy to New York to request a partial retraction of a 1996 U.N. human rights report on wartime brothels and had officials try to persuade U.S. education giant McGraw-Hill Education to revise textbook passages related to “comfort women.”

In March, Abe articulated his views during an interview with the Washington Post. When the interviewer asked whether he was a “revisionist,” the prime minister replied, “On the question of comfort women, when my thought goes to these people, who have been victimized by human trafficking and gone through immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description, my heart aches.”

It does not take a grammarian to note that who actually did the trafficking is missing from this statement of empathy. Nor does it take a logician to note that Abe’s formulation identifies “comfort women” as victims of human trafficking, while omitting that Japan’s sexual slavery system victimized the women. Slurring causality and denying culpability leaves the reader only Abe’s aching heart.

Even though this stance is considerably different from Obama’s, Abe has stuck to his offensive formulation. In April 2014, Obama forcefully called Japan’s military sexual slavery a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights.” In March, Abe, who aspires to boost his country’s standing as a “proactive contributor to peace” intoned, “Hitherto in history, many wars have been waged. In this context, women’s human rights were violated.” With uncanny constancy, this contrived context-free concern for women’s wartime human rights surfaced again during Abe’s speech in Congress.

Abe’s latest non-apology will only further infuriate Seoul. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has expressed her willingness to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions — but with Abe only after the prime minister directly addresses the “comfort women” issue. This deepening schism in Washington-Tokyo-Seoul relations will likely incentivize Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its communist party this October — a party founded on an exaggerated narrative of anti-Japanese resistance — with provocations. And the schism will likely embolden Beijing to act more aggressively in the East China Sea, where it claims the Diaoyu — islands administered by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus — and further test the U.S.-Japan alliance. By playing on Japan’s wartime atrocities and the common psychic scars perpetuated by an unrepentant Tokyo, Pyongyang and Beijing may even impel an aggrieved Seoul to gang up together on Japan, to Washington’s consternation.

In the lead-up to Abe’s next major speech, on Aug. 15, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s declaration of surrender, the Obama administration should put its moral and diplomatic leverage to the test. It should insist that Abe make an unequivocal statement of apology for Japan’s war crimes, on atrocities like massacres of civilians and enforced sexual slavery — and that Abe not repeat platitudes about upholding past government’s positions behind a smoke screen of willful omission of facts and studied use of the passive voice.

Moreover, Abe should lend credibility to his words by offering compensation to the surviving victims of sexual slavery. He should also commission a high-level working group on historical issues composed of leading Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese scholars and that includes work on joint historical research with South Korea and China. Such efforts will take time to bear fruit, but public diplomacy is one area where process vindicates even incremental progress.

Beijing, for its part, should resist the temptation to hype up Japan’s wartime transgressions for political gain. Park, too, should show flexibility and directly engage the Japanese leader on security issues of common concern. The common security threat of North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal demands close cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo. Park’s late father, President Park Chung-hee, normalized relations with Japan in 1965, despite nationwide protests. That her father was an authoritarian leader with greater means to control public opinion should not blur Park’s recognition that Japan is her country’s tacit ally in responding to the North Korean threat.

For Japan to win Seoul’s hand in collective countermeasures against Pyongyang and to strip Beijing of a key excuse for bluster and military buildup would be meaningful gains in this commemorative year. For the world to welcome him as a proactive contributor to peace, Abe must first show that he is properly penitent for crimes of the past.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Zach Przystup is assistant director for global executive and diplomatic education at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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