MICHAEL HEAZLE weighs the benefits of an apology from Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe next month for Japan’s actions during the Pacific War.
When Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe makes his long-awaited commemorative statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Pacific War this August, it will almost certainly be a rehearsal of his earlier speech to the US Congress in April this year.
Abe (pictured) will uphold the earlier statements made by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono and former prime ministers Tomiichi Murayama, and Junichira Koizumi. He will express remorse for the war and the suffering caused, and he will reference the need to focus on present and future relationships rather than those of the past. But he almost certainly will not issue another apology, and is very unlikely to directly address the ‘comfort women’ issue beyond the language he used when he addressed the US Congress during a visit to Washington last April.
Abe’s failure this August to apologise for the war and acknowledge the comfort women used as prostitutes by Japan’s military will provoke bitterly critical responses from Beijing and Seoul, the usual suspects. A statement similar to the one given to the US Congress, however, will most likely be well accepted, or at least not criticised, in most places elsewhere.
So is another Japan apology necessary? And, if Abe stops short of repeating the kind of full apology made by then Prime Minister Murayama in 1994 and again in 1995 for the 50th anniversary, will it matter? And if so, how?
Much of the importance attributed to Abe making another apology and again acknowledging Japan’s war guilt and the terrible suffering caused by its military during the war has been explained in terms of either the moral imperative of helping victims reconcile their suffering at the hands of the Japanese military, or Japan’s contemporary relations with its two normally belligerent Northeast Asian neighbours, China and South Korea.
The moral case for another direct apology is difficult to argue against, particularly for the Korean women who were forced either directly by the Japanese military, or by the circumstances of war to become prostitutes. Indeed, a direct apology to these women by Abe would help lay to rest the controversy and ill feeling caused by Abe and others in Japan who have in the past disputed Japan’s recruitment of comfort women. It would also make it more difficult for South Korean politicians to continue exploiting the issue for political ends at home, and hugely bolster Abe’s international credibility as a world leader.
The benefits for Japan’s foreign relations with South Korea, and especially China, however, are arguably much less clear-cut. The Chinese Communist Party, always concerned about its own legitimacy in the face of an economic downturn, has, like various politicians and groups in South Korea, heavily exploited and encouraged anti-Japanese sentiment at home as a form of ‘negative-nationalism’ intended to bolster domestic unity and government support.
But the major difference between China and South Korea is that, as an authoritarian regime with major legitimacy problems and also a geostrategic competitor with Japan, no amount of apologising by Japan is likely to cause the Chinese government to stop exploiting Japan’s wartime past for political ends.
Even in South Korea the benefits of another direct apology are made questionable by both the already ingrained resentment of Japan among many Koreans, and the failure of even the sincerity of the Kono and Murayama apologies to change this (Kono’s statement followed an apology by his predecessor as Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato in 1992).
Another apology this year is, in the long run, unlikely to change very much at all in terms of Chinese and Korean attitudes towards Japan and the dynamics that drive them.
Critics would argue that the positive effects of these statements were seriously diluted by subsequent revisionist outbursts from Japan. But it is very difficult to stop this from happening in open democratic societies like Japan’s, and even harder to stop those with an interest in doing so in Seoul from misrepresenting these often thoughtless statements as the majority view among Japanese people, which they are not.
Thus another apology this year is, in the long run, unlikely to change very much at all in terms of Chinese and Korean attitudes towards Japan and the dynamics that drive them.
Plenty also has been written about the importance of an Abe apology for the Obama administration’s rebalancing efforts in the region, which rely on US alliance partners contributing more to managing North Korea’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour and China’s more aggressive territorial claims in the East and South China seas.
The point made here is that Japan and South Korea’s ongoing historical tensions are preventing their governments from cooperating on these and other pressing security related issues, as indicated by the ongoing failure of South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Abe to sit down and talk to each other since coming to office. However, given that mutual antagonism is the norm for Japan–South Korean relations, this argument fails to account for the notable periods of security cooperation that have occurred between the two countries in the past.
The explanation by Victor Cha for this is that while the history problem causes animosity to become the default position for their bilateral relations, it is not the major influence on Japan–South Korean cooperation. Cha’s 1999 study, Alignment Despite Antagonism, showed how cooperation increased when both countries lacked confidence in the US commitment and worsened when one or both countries felt secure. Cha thus concluded that the independent variable for cooperation was perceptions of vulnerability in their alliance relationships with the United States, not levels of bilateral angst.
In the current, and rapidly shifting regional environment, moreover, the signs are that the Obama administration also is beginning to suffer from ‘Korea fatigue’—that is a growing intolerance with Korean thinking being informed by the circumstances of the past instead of the challenges and opportunities of the present.
Abe’s visit to Washington was a major coup for his reform plans at home, and has further strengthened the Japan–US alliance through agreements on increased levels of Japanese military support for the alliance and joint backing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
As the United States increasingly focuses its attention on China as its first strategic competitor in the region since the Second World War—while expecting major partners like Japan, South Korea and Australia to pick up more of the defence burden in deterring, and if necessary containing, an expansionist China—Washington along with the many of the ASEAN governments will continue prioritising the challenges of today over the problems of the past. South Korea would be wise to follow this lead.
Comfort Women, rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, August 2011 (