Shadow Government

Is Asia Finally Moving on from the Grim Legacy of World War II?

Does Japan's prime minister's apology on the 70th anniversary of the war foreshadow a new era?

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In the 1970s, when China was warming to Japan as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping set aside the painful legacies of the Sino-Japanese War and argued that “the next generation will be wise enough to solve the problems of history.” They weren’t. Polls show that succeeding generations of Chinese and Japanese have held even greater animus towards each other, while similar trends have emerged between Japanese and Koreans in recent years. It was in the midst of this torrent of nationalism that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued his official statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on Aug. 14 and Japanese Emperor Akihito offered his statement on Aug. 15.

Abe did not resolve the problem of history. He is considered a nationalist and has questioned the validity of earlier apologies issued in the mid-1990s by Japanese prime ministers from the Socialist Party and political leaders from the left of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Yet contrary to almost all expectations and media analysis in the United States, Abe may have opened a modest path towards easing tensions with China and Korea with his statement.

Abe’s unprecedented four-page explanation of Japan’s path to war and post-war contributions to peace made multiple references to the need for remorse, reflection, and bowing deeply in grief for the suffering caused by aggression, colonization and war. Critics argued that he only vowed to stand by all previous Japanese official apologies (there have been about 50), but then argued that new generations of Japanese born after the war — about 80 percent of Japan’s population — should not have to repeatedly apologize in perpetuity. Polls taken after the statement showed that about two thirds of Japanese citizens basically agreed with him. Apologies in East Asia (particularly in the Japanese language) are formulaic, mask specifics, and imply altered relations of power and hierarchy. The Chinese view, not surprisingly, is that Japan must continue apologizing in perpetuity. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s new Eurasian Security concept, there should be no U.S. alliances in Asia and Japan’s role should be defined first and foremost by the former enemies clause of the U.N. Charter and the punitive terms of Yalta and Potsdam. Abe wants the narrative to be about the San Francisco Peace Treaties and U.S. security alliances established in 1951 as well as the post-war norms of democracy and rule of law that China has not fully embraced. The definition of legitimacy, power, and hierarchy today is shaped by how countries interpret the past 70 years and not just the years that preceded August 1945.

The important thing, as Abe stressed in his statement and press conference afterwards, is that the Japanese people must always face history and reflect on what their nation had done. I think it is unlikely that future prime ministers will now ritualistically apologize, but there is also a good chance that they will focus on the specifics of what Japan did in ways they have not before.

Abe’s statement was aimed first and foremost at the Japanese people. He aimed for the center — not the right — and hit the target. His quasi-pacifist coalition partner, Komeito, signed on to the statement, which was a cabinet document and not Abe’s own (though he personally drafted much of it). Those who follow Japanese politics closely would be hard pressed to think of a centrist political leader in Tokyo who would have offered a significantly different statement. The speculation in the New York Times and Washington Post that Emperor Akihito was somehow chastising Abe by issuing an expression of deep remorse the day after Abe’s statement is also pure speculation. In fact, both Abe and the Emperor expressed greater remorse than they have in their previous statements.

Importantly, the centrism of Abe’s statement has led to an increase in his hitherto flagging political support rate in domestic polls and helps clear the way for passage in September of new security legislation that would allow Japan to engage in collective self defense for the first time since the war — essentially integration Japanese forces in operations with the United States, Australia, and other like-minded states (primarily in rear area logistic and defense missions rather than offensive missions). This legislation will enhance deterrence and stability in Asia as China pressures maritime neighbors and North Korea continues building its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals. There has been a debate about whether Abe is more of a nationalist or strategic realist. The recent evidence all points to the latter, though Abe’s ideological leanings were refreshed when his wife Akie visited the Yasukuni Shrine two days after his statement on the war.

Abe’s second target after the Japanese people, was probably the United States and Australia. The U.S. National Security Council spokesman and the Australian prime minister’s office quickly issued statements welcoming Abe’s statement. Reactions in the rest of Asia were muted, reflecting the complicated mix of painful memories of the war, appreciation for Japan’s economic aid and investment in the past, and hope that Japan will help to quietly counterbalance a more assertive China. In Southeast Asia over 95 percent of those polled last year said that they believed that their country had a friendly relationship with Japan. Northeast Asia is more difficult terrain for Tokyo.

Koreans still have legitimate grievances about how Japan has responded to the suffering of the euphemistically-named “comfort women,” dozens of whom are still alive and in their 80s and 90s. Korea’s foreign minister argued immediately after Abe’s statement that “actions are more important than words,” a relatively neutral non-endorsement, and then President Park Geun-hye expressed disappointment that there was not an apology on the comfort women (Abe did make reference to the suffering of women behind the lines), but noted the words of remorse and signaled her desire to move forward with Japan. China reiterated its demand that Japan apologize, but official Chinese media has not engaged in a massive anti-Japanese propaganda campaign (at least beyond the current routine anti-Japanese campaign in the media). There is growing expectation in the wake of the Aug. 14 statement that Abe, Xi, and Park will make progress towards a trilateral summit — possibly as early September (when both Abe and Park are contemplating attending China’s own celebration of victory over Japan on Sept. 4 — the day after the military’s massive parade in Tiananmen Square), or more likely in November around the annual East Asian summitry.

So several days after Abe’s statement there is more movement towards reconciliation than away from it — even if this will remain a multi-generational effort that defies American impatience for quick results.

 TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @JapanChair. Twitter: @JapanChair

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