Abe’s World War 2 Statement: Beyond History

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Abe’s World War 2 Statement: Beyond History

The factors shaping the Abe Statement are far more complex than historical issues alone.

Abe’s World War 2 Statement: Beyond History
Credit: REUTERS/Yuya Shino

With this piece, The Diplomat kicks off a series exploring historical issues in Northeast Asia in the run-up to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Stay tuned for future articles in the series.

The Abe Statement to come in August has four principal audiences: Japan, the United States, South Korea, and China. So much attention is being given to the third and fourth of these that the two primary audiences are often overlooked. Under the overall rubric of establishing a “normal Japan,” Abe’s foremost objective is reconstructing national identity. But he also must be attentive to national interests and Japan’s diplomacy in pursuit of them. Unlike earlier statements on the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the end of WWII, this one is part of a sequence of commemorations in 2015, notably also including Xi Jinping’s September 3 narrative on history. Abe can reignite a downward cycle of distrust or facilitate a spirit of reconciliation with South Korea and China. But, more importantly for him, he can boost pride in Japan and trust from the United States.

Domestic Factors

We should not make the mistake of thinking of the external audience before the internal one. Abe is intent on changing Japan and regards the repetition of self-criticisms as masochistic. However many concessions he makes in accepting war responsibility for Japan (using the term “aggression” will be a closely watched marker), his goal is to restore pride, minimizing a negative self-image. Understandably, his purpose will be to convey a positive sense of a postwar pursuit of peace (but not in the idealistic, pacifist sense long acclaimed by progressives). Abe may showcase international responsibility through collective self-defense, Trans-Pacific Partnership 21st-century rulemaking, and a “proactive contribution to peace.”  He cannot avoid an expression of regret and an acknowledgement of causing suffering, but his words are likely to be chosen to keep such reminders of negative conduct on the part of Japan to the absolute minimum.

The 70th anniversary statement could have helped two audiences to reconsider their misconceptions of World War II and historical memory that have continued to sow distrust in Northeast Asia. The Japanese people, on the one hand, and the Chinese people, on the other, could have recognized a call to balanced judgment and honest evaluation of events from the 20th century. Yet campaigns in both countries over the past few years have so exacerbated the misperceptions that already prevailed that there is little possibility that either public would be amenable to even the most well-crafted plea for putting history behind us. Moreover, throughout Abe’s entire career he has sought to put history in the forefront in his quest for a “normal Japan,” as he conceives it. At the same time, Xi Jinping’s tenure as the leader in China and the preparations for his own statements provide not a shred of hope that he would rather put history behind China rather than refocusing on it.

The Japan-U.S.-South Korea Triangle

Realistically, Abe’s statement will be judged not only for whether it adds no new barriers to sober thinking in both Japan and China, but for whether it is constructive for U.S. trust in Abe, while minimizing damage to seriously troubled Japan-South Korea relations.

After three years of a downward spiral in Japan-ROK relations, there are signs of a turnaround, which is much desired by the United States. Just as Abe’s statement to the Joint Session of Congress on April 29 was viewed more through the lens of South Korean reactions than U.S. or Chinese reactions, this August 15 statement is likely to be viewed through the eyes of South Koreans above all. They appear to be looking for words to acknowledge two realities: 1) the negative nature of Japan’s colonial rule, not just its “aggression” — a word more closely associated with its conduct in China or elsewhere; and 2) the state’s responsibility for the treatment of “comfort women.”

While these words are seemingly not a big stretch for Abe, who has reaffirmed the Murayama and Kono statements and accepted the Potsdam agreement in recent months, they pose a special challenge for the movement he has led and what it has emphasized as the essence of Japan’s revisionist cause. The focus of their vitriol has been those who have aroused South Koreans to think that the Japanese state in any way coerced sex slaves to serve Japanese troops, and, despite the compelling realist case for an overture to break the impasse with Seoul, the Japanese public has been incited to “hate Korea” in headlines splashed across the media in unprecedented fashion.

Washington has been facilitating the recent improvement in relations between Abe and Park with intense diplomacy, building on the foundation laid by its intervention in the first third of 2014. While its priority is trilateral security relations, reinforced by the decision in Seoul since late 2014 to wall off history in a two-track approach, the United States has encouraged not only a future-oriented outlook to replace recent preoccupation with the history of war and colonialism, but also a new emphasis on the Cold War era. If Abe’s statement accentuates the positive contributions of Japan to the peace and prosperity of East Asia in this era, Washington should encourage Seoul to overcome its reticence to acknowledge this record. Rebalancing the overall historical narrative with a shared positive story about how Japan contributed to the “economic miracle” of South Korea as well as to other success stories and also became a strong force for peace in support of the United States can be made easier by Abe’s choice of words.

The Larger Context

Japan’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with a statement conveying remorse will be sandwiched between the May 9 celebration in Moscow led by Vladimir Putin and the September 3 celebration in Beijing under Xi Jinping. Abe’s message will serve as a response not only to insistence that an order which left Japan under a stigma and without a normal military presence must be maintained or revived, but to claims that Ukraine, North Korea, and other areas fall into a postwar alignment that is being challenged by the United States and its allies. In a way, Abe will be speaking on behalf of those who advocate a clashing vision to Putin and Xi’s. This entails a rules-based order based on universal values and agreement to only settle disputes by peaceful means. Japan’s lessons of defeat and record since 1945 make it a credible champion of the new order if Abe takes care not to allow his message to be overshadowed by language that alienates South Korea. Preparing for a summit with Park Geun-hye with a statement that she welcomes and reinforces as a shared vision of postwar success and a future order is the ideal result in August.

The combination of objectives for Abe’s statement can be summarized as follows. One, while shifting the emphasis from Japan’s historical wrongdoing to its post-‘45 and future-oriented positive role, Abe must avoid skipping critical words that are reminders to the Japanese people as well as Japan’s victims of its war responsibility. Two, building on his successful April visit to Washington, Abe must reassure Japan’s ally that he recognizes the importance of not further alienating South Koreans and those Americans who fear that his revisionism will interfere with his realism about security. Three, Abe must not deflect attention from the international response to what Xi and Putin are saying about history. It would be easy, but unrealistic, to focus on what Abe should include in his statement to satisfy historians and proponents of a liberal world order. The luxury of such idealism does not suit our troubled times.

Gilbert Rozman is the Emeritus Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton and the editor-in-chief of The Asan Forum.