The Debate

On Japan’s History: Clearing the Air – and the Agenda

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The Debate

On Japan’s History: Clearing the Air – and the Agenda

Viewing Japanese policy through the past highlights the dominance history has gained over the diplomatic agenda.

Last year’s leadership changes in China, Japan, and South Korea mark the point at which diplomatic relations between the three countries headed toward sub-zero temperatures. Despite a trilateral deputy foreign ministers’ summit held on November 7, prospects for an escape from the current deep-freeze in relations look dim between Chinese accusations of Japanese remilitarization, South Korean anxiety over the “Japanese threat,” and Japanese allegations of Chinese aggression.  But this insistence on interpreting Japanese policy through the past highlights the unhealthy dominance history has gained over the diplomatic agenda, capturing Northeast Asian relations in a pervasive negative spiral.

Much has been written about the influence of history in Northeast Asian diplomacy, either lambasting Japan’s reluctance to “come clean” on its actions during the Second World War or commenting on the domestic incentives in both Chinese and South Korean politics to demonize Japan.  Both assertions are true; the Chinese government and South Korean politicians frequently invoke the legacy of Japanese imperialism for domestic political purposes.  And Japan’s selective memory of said history provokes genuine anger in China and South Korea – anger that makes anti-Japan policies such an effective political device in these countries in the first place.

But historical grievances are no longer a thorny item to be balanced with other issues on the diplomatic agenda.  Chinese and South Korean politicians who once attempted to manage the diplomatic fallout of Japan’s historical inconsistency, even while occasionally exploiting them for domestic purposes, now frame their other diplomatic issues in terms of history, whether those issues are territorial disputes or bilateral corporate litigation. This is despite present Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backtracking on plans to revise the 1995 Murayama Statement on war responsibility and the 1993 Kono Statement on comfort women, while doing nothing of the symbolic magnitude of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated personal visits to Yasukuni Shrine.  

Arguably, historical issues are being resolved to China and South Korea’s satisfaction under the Abe government, and yet relations are objectively worse now than they were under the Koizumi government (2001-2006).  The ghost of history now hangs over all other items on the agenda, a blanket of suspicion suffocating meaningful diplomacy and poisoning relations.

For China and South Korea, the issue of history has become a fog that seeps into every foreign policy decision, an imperative to check Japan’s “right-wing turn” and an understanding that negotiations with Japan are impossible.  Despite the admittedly worrying historical opinions held by Prime Minister Abe, it is significant that China and South Korea have categorically refused to engage in meaningful diplomatic initiatives with Japan, even when Abe’s government has recanted many of its historical positions over external criticism.  Is the issue of history, however painful and frustrating, reason enough to curtail diplomatic action on the many issues faced by all three countries in the present?

Worse, the influence of history in driving Chinese and South Korean foreign policy has already begun to shape Japanese attitudes towards an unhealthy conclusion that China and South Korea are irreconcilably hostile – and that there is no need to even attempt to maintain civil relations. The massive public distrust of China ever since the 2010 incident near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, as well as recurring incidents of small-scale, virulent anti-Korean demonstrations in Japan, indicates how this view has begun to gain traction, which bodes poorly for the future of regional diplomatic relations.

The trajectory of Northeast Asian international relations is thus doomed to remain trapped at below the freezing point, with ample opportunity for further deterioration as each country is biased to interpret the others’ actions in the worst light possible.  Additionally, the (highly likely) possibility of future Japanese historical slights will only further intensify biases in the minds of China and South Korea, which in turn strengthens the hostility felt in Japan towards its neighbors.  The diplomatic agenda will remain hijacked by historical grievances and mutual suspicion, at best, while critical issues fester unaddressed. 

For Northeast Asia to break out of this bleak outlook, the ambiguity of historical memory in Japan must end.  Ultimately, this ambiguity is the fount of the deep anger within the Chinese and South Korean consciousness that incentivized the use of history in domestic political rhetoric, which now threatens to derail productive diplomacy between Northeast Asia’s three largest economies. We must recognize that the inconsistency of Japanese historical memory has driven Northeast Asian diplomacy into the ground, and that it is absolutely necessary for Japan to have a firm, non-negotiable position on its history if the diplomatic agenda is to be unfrozen (what position it might take is a question for another day).

It is easily imaginable that Japan’s future leadership could either refuse to entertain historical issues in its foreign policy, or outright contest the validity of Chinese and South Korean grievances.  Clearly, this would fly in the face of what China and South Korea see as an acceptable starting point for resuming normal diplomacy. But even so, an unambiguous and revised Japanese stance would unfreeze the diplomatic agenda by forcing every country to accept that the issues of history are well and truly impossible to resolve – and that foreign policy must be driven by the actual facts and concerns born from this sobering reality rather than by present hopes for an apology that may or may not be forthcoming.  A resolution of the history issue would go to great lengths to push diplomacy back into the realm of the real, as opposed to the parallel discourses of pain that have derailed relations to date.

Shunsuke Hirose is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).