August 15, 2015
By Peter Duus
Crafting Prime Minister Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the war could not have been not an easy task. The statement is addressed to several disparate audiences – the Japanese public, the American government, the Chinese and South Korean governments, and the Japanese neo-nationalist movement. As a result, it is sprinkled with linguistic ambiguities and equivocations likely to provoke debate about its meaning and significance. Not everyone will read it the same way. It is not likely to dispel continuing mistrust of Mr. Abe in Japan’s neighboring countries but it may reassure its audience in friendly countries, including the United States, that whatever his personal views might be Mr. Abe as national leader has abandoned an apologist view of the war.
As promised, the statement offers a reiteration of the statements made by Prime Minister Murayama in 1995 and Prime Minister Koizumi in 2005, carefully, albeit mechanically, including four key words – aggression, colonial rule, apology, and remorse – that the Chinese and Korean governments established as a litmus test for Japan’s sincerity. It also recognizes that Japan has a “responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future,” an echo perhaps of President Weisacker’s 1985 speech to the German parliament.
Unlike the earlier statements, however, the Abe statement begins by putting the war in a historical context, namely that Japan became an independent modern nation in the age of colonialism but after World War I strayed from international attempts to promote national self-determination and to create an international community that would outlaw war. The precipitating circumstances, it suggests, were the onset of world depression and the emergence of Western economic blocs based on colonial regimes. Some may regard this interpretation as an attempt to justify the war but it is one that many Western as well as Japanese historians would agree with.
The statement offers a more explicit statement of who the war’s victims were – not only the 3 million Japanese war dead but the “countless” innocent citizens in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands who died either in battle or from starvation. It also mentions women behind the battle fields whose “honor and dignity” were severely injured, a clear but oblique reference to the “comfort women” in military brothels. Perhaps most important of all, the statement recognizes that the sorrows of these victims will never be healed.
As expected, the statement emphasizes Japan’s postwar emergence as country that embraces the principle that international disputes ought to be settled peacefully not through the use of force and that is committed to a fair and open international economic order. It also affirms Japan’s commitment to the unyielding values of freedom, democracy, and human rights – though interestingly it does not mention the rule of law, often an element in official statements about national values.
On the whole, the statement can be seen as a small but important step toward a truce in the history wars that have raged in East Asia for the last three decades. But in the final analysis, actions speak louder than words. In the past, official expressions of remorse for the war and its victims have been undermined by counter-statements by neo-nationalist politicians, officials and intellectuals. While Prime Minister Abe was making his statement, a contingent of several dozen Diet members were paying their respects to the war dead enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine. Unless Mr. Abe expends political capital at least to rein in the neo-nationalists in his party, his attempt toward reconciliation will come to naught.
Peter Duus is the William H. Bonsall Professor of Japanese History, emeritus; and a senior fellow, by courtesy, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.