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Does It Matter Whether Japan Says Sorry for Its Wartime Behavior?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is about to give a major speech on Japan’s World War II aggression. But in Tokyo, history is never really about history.


How sorry is sorry enough? In April 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a local TV station that because he upholds “the basic thinking” behind past apologies for Japan’s behavior, “there isn’t a need to reiterate them.” Needless to say, this infuriated many Chinese and Koreans, whose relatives and ancestors felt the brunt of Japan’s wartime misconduct. But a day before Abe’s much anticipated Aug. 14 speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia, it seems likely that Abe will “stick closely to words used by previous prime ministers, such as a reference to Japan’s ‘aggression’ despite his personal distaste for the language,” according to the Financial Times. Amid a downturn in Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea, Abe is squeezed between the demands of his conservative base and his aggrieved East Asian neighbors.

The importance of the apology issued to China and South Korea is understandable: They suffered terribly under Japanese aggression in the 20th century. Tokyo controlled the Korean Peninsula from 1895 until the end of the war in 1945, a period Koreans remember for its brutal and exploitative tyranny. Starting from the 1920s, Japan colonized parts of China’s northeast, and then invaded the heartland of China in 1937, causing millions of Chinese deaths and committing numerous atrocities. Especially galling to many was how the Japanese military forced thousands of Korean and Chinese women — euphemistically known as “comfort women” — into sexual slavery. Koreans and Chinese still harbor deep anger and indignation over these events. Nor are they pleased with the recent U.S. effort to elevate a seemingly unrepentant Japan into a more capable regional strategic actor.

Indeed, Japan’s troubles with the history issue stem partly from the inconsistency in U.S. policy during its 1945-1952 occupation of Japan. The U.S. occupation government under Gen. Douglas MacArthur found that much of postwar Japanese society was weary of the political oppression of the war years and disillusioned with the jingoism that had brought disaster to the home islands. (Conservative Japanese elites, however, believed that Japan’s recovery should be based on preserving social stability, rebuilding national pride, and maintaining traditional practices such as reverence for the emperor.)

The occupation authorities initially focused on political liberalization. The Americans introduced civil liberties, fostered a democratic civic culture through outreach programs, empowered women, separated religion from the state, broke up business conglomerates, granted rights to organized labor, and purged the education system of imperial nationalist sentiment.

However in 1948, after years of worsening relations between Washington and Moscow, the emphasis of the occupation government shifted to strengthening Japan as an American ally in the Cold War. Dismantling of the business conglomerates ceased, new laws strengthened state control over the economy, and Washington rehabilitated some members of the Japanese wartime government. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, for example, had been minister of munitions during the war and was incarcerated while under suspicion of war crimes. He went from prison to prime minister in under a decade.

The U.S. occupation presided over an incomplete revolution: It instituted a liberal press and an anti-militarism education system — but left conservatives in power. Japan was ideologically fractured and primed for a long-term struggle between left and right. To confront a strong challenge from the Japan Socialist Party, which extolled pacifist principles and wartime contrition and opposed the alliance with the United States, Japan’s two largest conservative parties merged in 1955 to form the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP. A haven for revisionist views of Japanese wartime history, the LDP has dominated Japanese politics, controlling a majority in the legislature for all but four years since its founding.

Today, most LDP members of the Japanese parliament — and a majority of Abe’s cabinet ministers — are affiliated with Nippon Kaigi, an ultranationalist group that takes revisionist positions on the role of comfort women and Japan’s crimes during World War II. Japanese conservatives decry what they call a “masochistic” history. They argue that Japan is unfairly singled out for condemnation because it lost the war; Tokyo’s wartime behavior actually liberated Asia from Western colonialism; and the enemies of Japan exaggerated or even fabricated alleged atrocities.

Despite resistance from the conservatives, foreign pressure has prompted high-ranking Japanese officials to offer multiple apologies for Japan’s wartime aggression and atrocities. Two important past apologies, by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993 and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, established a benchmark against which Abe’s speech will be evaluated. The Kono Statement expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” for the recruitment of comfort women “against their own will” — although Kono blamed “private recruiters” rather than the government for abducting the women. The Murayama Statement acknowledged that Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” had “caused tremendous damage and suffering,” particularly in Asia, for which Murayama felt “deep remorse” and offered a “heartfelt apology.” Use of the word “aggression” was a significant Japanese concession, and mention of suffering under Japanese colonial rule was important to Koreans.

Repeating these or similar key phrases became standard practice for Japanese prime ministers. But this self-flagellation has roiled some domestic audiences. Japanese conservatives have repeatedly complained that no amount of apologizing seemed to placate Japan’s critics: The apologies, for example, did not prevent a sharp downturn in Sino-Japan relations in 2012.

But Japan’s behavior during World War II remains an obstacle to strategic alignments taking their natural course in East Asia. The fellow democracies of Japan and South Korea both fear Chinese domination. Anger among the Koreans, however, hampers deeper defense partnerships: South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Abe have not yet held a bilateral summit meeting. Meanwhile, Beijing has interests in using the history issue to divide Japan from South Korea and the United States. The issue provides an opportunity for Beijing to disparage its Japanese rival as unfit for regional leadership. It allows Beijing to redirect attention away from a militaristic foreign policy that has stimulated security cooperation among China’s nervous neighbors. Japan-bashing also strengthens Chinese President Xi Jinping’s legitimacy at home as a strong leader who reflects popular nationalist sentiment.

For the United States, Abe’s agenda is a mixed blessing. For decades, Washington urged Tokyo to adopt the principle of collective self-defense, which would allow Japanese forces to fight alongside U.S. forces in international conflicts — and not only in defense of an attack on Japan. In July 2014, Abe’s cabinet adopted a new interpretation of the constitution that would allow Japan to help defend an ally. Two bills that would codify this security posture have recently passed the lower house of the parliament, and Abe’s party controls enough seats there to override a possible “no” vote in the upper house. Washington hails the implementation of collective self-defense, but the historical revisionism that comes along with Abe’s program is a headache for the United States. With Koreans already opposed to Japan’s collective self-defense, intensification of the history issue makes a hard sell for Washington even harder. Meanwhile, addressing U.S.-China tensions becomes more difficult: The Japanese remilitarization for which the Chinese blame the U.S. government looks more threatening to Beijing taking place under the administration of a historical revisionist such as Abe.

It’s not all bleak, however. Despite continued anti-Japan frenzy in some South Korean media, Park has indicated she would like to put aside the history issue. And in Beijing, a sputtering economy seems to have rekindled China’s appreciation for the Sino-Japan economic relationship: Xi and Abe may have a summit meeting as early as September.

To ensure the continued recovery of Japan’s relations with South Korea and China, Abe likely needs to at least reaffirm the key points of the Kono and Murayama Statements. And hopefully, the payoff of a more hospitable international environment for Japan would justify the cost of offending the country’s conservatives.

AFP/Getty Images

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