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What Abe’s WW2 Anniversary Statement Says About Japanese Identity

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Tokyo Report

What Abe’s WW2 Anniversary Statement Says About Japanese Identity

The language in Abe’s statement reflects a mainstream consensus on modern Japanese identity.

What Abe’s WW2 Anniversary Statement Says About Japanese Identity
Credit: Tokyo image via Perati Komson /

After months of heated speculation, Asia watchers can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II has been issued, and did indeed include the four key terms: “aggression,” “colonial domination,” “deep remorse,” and “apology.” Though the quibbling among politicians and diplomats — over Abe’s passive tense or the indirectness of the references to “comfort women” or the extraneous history lesson — will undoubtedly continue for a few more days, the more interesting and enduring question is this: what changes, if any, in Japanese identity does the Abe Statement reflect?

The Abe Statement, after all, was passed as a Cabinet resolution, meaning that it was intended to reflect broader Japanese sentiment. The purpose was to try to unify as many Japanese people as possible behind a common understanding of what the war means to Japan and what lessons Japan learned from the war. Sheila Smith echoes this sentiment in CFR’s Asia Unbound blog: “Asked what his message to the Japanese people was, Abe answered that he sought to make a statement of Japan’s past and future that would be shared broadly among the people of Japan.”

In this, Abe may well have succeeded. As Michael Green writes in CSIS’s Critical Questions series, “Abe’s statement is likely to play well with the center in Japan.” Though individual Japanese will find fault with Abe’s statement, it is not far-fetched to characterize his statement as a generally accepted understanding of Japan’s role in the war itself, and more importantly, role in the postwar international order.

In analyzing what sort of change in Japanese identity the Abe statement reflects, it is useful to turn to a model developed by Linus Hagström and Karl Gustafsson to explain identity change (the full article is available for free here). Hagström and Gustafsson postulate that the best way to understand Japanese identity is by conceiving of it as three mutually interacting layers.

The “most sedimented,” or strongly institutionalized, layer of Japanese identity is an understanding of Japan’s position in a hierarchical world. Where does Japan see itself standing in the world hierarchy? Above an “inferior Asia” – which has historically been and continues to be seen as external and most often threatening to Japan – but below a “superior West.”

This basic understanding of Japan’s historical place in the world is affirmed in Abe’s overview of history, when he explains that, in reaction to Western colonialism, “the resultant sense of crisis drove Japan forward to achieve modernization. Japan built a constitutional government earlier than any other nation in Asia. The country preserved its independence throughout. The Japan-Russia War gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa.” In other words, Japan’s desire to “catch up” to the West drove its domination of Asia.

However, there is a change in the parts where Abe focuses on what Japan will do in the future. Most importantly, there is less emphasis on the need to “catch up” to the West – after all, Japan has already accomplished that goal. But there is continuity in the sense of superiority that permeates Abe’s vision for Japan’s future, which is not entirely misplaced given Japan’s standing as an economic superpower (though the future of that standing may be in jeopardy). Abe conveys Japan’s mission and the idea that Japan is and should be a leader in the world through active verbs: “Japan will continue to firmly uphold the principle that disputes must be settled peacefully and diplomatically … and to reach out to other countries in the world to do the same”; “Japan will fulfill its responsibility in the international community, aiming at the non-proliferation and ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons”; “Japan will lead the world in making the 21st century an era in which women’s rights are not infringed upon”; “Japan will make even greater efforts to fight against poverty”; “contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world more than ever before” (emphases added).

Abe’s Japan sees itself as deserving to be not only a regional leader, but a global leader. Compared to the 1930s and 1940s, and even the 1950s and 1960s when Japan recovered from the war at a breakneck speed, Abe’s Japan is more demanding of recognition for what it has – and can – contributed to global peace and prosperity.

The middle layer in Hagström-Gustafsson model is where Japan’s identity in relation to multiple, specific “others” is carved out. Here, concrete descriptions – such as “democratic,” rational,” “pacifist,” “antimilitarist,” “abnormal,” and so on – distinguish Japan from specific others that do not share those characteristics. But it is also in this layer that Japanese commonalities to other states can be reinforced.

Analyzing which countries Japan could be trying to distinguish itself from when it declares it will “firmly uphold the basic values of freedom, democracy, and human rights as unyielding values” requires reading between the lines, but not a whole lot of creativity. By emphasizing such democratic values, Japan is trying to align itself closer to the United States and away from China. Of course, Japan would welcome a more transparent and accountable China, but without some dramatic change in China’s domestic political structure or its “patriotic education campaign,” Japan’s “othering” of China is only likely to intensify.

Japan’s use of China as the “other” has been increasing since the 2000s because of Japanese annoyance at Chinese under-appreciation of Japan’s commitment to peace and contribution to China’s postwar development (see Gustafsson’s 2014 article here). The Abe Statement is just another instance of Japan responding to Chinese accusations of Japanese militarism by reminding the world that Japan is the state that has pledged to “never again resort to any form of the threat or the use of force as a means of settling international disputes” – not China.

The least institutionalized layer of Japanese identity is “where politics and specific political issues are discussed and where agents operate.” Policies in question right now include Japan’s diplomacy towards China, Japan’s diplomacy towards South Korea, and the security legislation that is being debated in the Upper House following the reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow for collective self-defense. The Abe Statement’s timing is significant not only because this year is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat, but also because of the ongoing debate over Abe’s proposed security bills. Abe’s domestic and international critics are not only concerned about the mistakes Japan made in the 1930s and 1940s, but also the mistakes that Japan might make in the future.

The Abe Statement is a window into the prime minister’s thinking that sheds light on what he wants Japan to be able to do with its newly-acquired right to collective self-defense. And Abe did his best to reassure opponents that he believes the security legislation will not change Japan’s pacifist identity, interests, or foreign policies:

With deep repentance for that war, Japan made that pledge. Upon it, we have created a free and democratic country, abided by the rule of law, and consistently upheld that pledge never to wage a war again. While taking silent pride in the path we have walked as a peace-loving nation for as long as seventy years, we remain determined never to deviate from this steadfast course (emphases added).

In sum, the Abe Statement reflects how material changes in the past 70 years have changed Japan’s self-identity from being a regional leader to being a global leader. This, unfortunately, does nothing to ameliorate the collision course that Japan and China are set on, driven by their respective desires for prestige and perceptions of themselves as the true leader of Asia. However, material changes may again force a change in this aspect of Japan’s identity, if Japan’s economic situation deteriorates so far that Japan can no longer play a global role.

With respect to China, Japan’s primary “other in contemporary discourse, the Abe Statement did not introduce anything new. Many self-descriptions of Japan included in his statement do draw stark contrasts with China without needing to be explicit. This is Japan speaking on an international stage to other democracies, such as the United States, Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan, urging them to disregard Chinese attempts to portray Japan as “militaristic.” Japan’s “othering” of China is likely to continue as long as China continues to deny Japan’s self-understanding as a pacifist state.

And finally, the Abe Statement cannot – and should not be expected to – silence critics of the proposed security bills. However, it was an important platform from which Abe could articulate his belief that a Japan that exercises the right of collective self-defense can still be a pacifist Japan.