In the immediate aftermath of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s murder, Japan’s current leader Kishida Fumio promised to honor Abe’s legacy by building upon his accomplishments. The reportedly more liberal Kishida, however, came to power expected to do the opposite and dial back some of his predecessor’s more provocative stances. His room to maneuver was limited, however, by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s right wing and Abe’s own constant public hectoring on hewing to the course.
With Abe’s untimely death, Kishida has an opportunity to demonstrate his independence. The first indication of a new course may come with his August 15 address at the National Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead.
A crucial objective of Abe’s two terms was the freeing of Japan from “masochistic” history. This odd expression was a call to arms advocating both amending the U.S.-imposed “mind-control” constitution and ending Japan’s war apology diplomacy. Although constitutional amendment was not accomplished, the latter objective has been achieved.
Abe led an aggressive campaign to reconstruct history and monitor its telling at home and aboard. Diplomats asked the governments of the Philippines and Germany to remove statues memorializing the “comfort women” and other victims of sexual violence. Abe ordered the creation of commissions questioning the legitimacy of Japan’s 1995 official war apology, known as the Murayama statement, and the 1993 provisional apology to the comfort women, known as the Kono statement. (Here it should be noted that this particular statement is no longer prominently noted on the Foreign Ministry’s webpage explaining their position regarding the comfort women. Instead, it is buried in another document and only the knowledgeable and persistent can find it.)
Cabinet level officials squired applications for UNESCO World Heritage recognition of culturally dubious and politically fraught sites. One was an island shrine inaccessible to women. Another glorified Japan’s industrialization while disregarding the troubled use and abuse of convicts, the underclasses, children, Koreans, Chinese, and prisoners of war. Government promises to UNESCO to include this missing history have not been kept.
The Foreign Ministry was pressed into defending false history in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, scrubbing its website of historical documents containing embarrassing details, and asking the public to report historical narratives contradicting the new official positions. The Abe government used budget allocations to hire public relations firms and amateur historians to cast doubt on widely respected historians.
In talks with the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea seeking to resolve the disagreements over the proper means of recognizing the dignity of the comfort women, the Abe government resorted to an unprecedented diplomatic diversion. Despite announcing an “agreement,” the 2015 comfort women talks resulted in two competing unsigned memoranda distributed at a “Joint Press Occasion.” The Japanese memorandum, in particular, contains an impossible demand that “this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly.” The “Press Occasion” document was furthermore not Cabinet approved, unlike every other diplomatic agreement the government of Japan has ever announced.
The crowning moment of Abe’s revisionism was his 2020 August 15th address at the National Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead. His remarks were the culmination of a seven-year effort to completely revise, if not indeed rescind, the 1995 Murayama statement, the cabinet-approved apology for World War II released by Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi. Until Abe, the Murayama statement was the template for all Japanese apologies. The 2020 statement, however, had many of Murayama’s key phrases removed. The new statement was not an apology to Japan’s victims. Instead, it paid tribute to the Japanese people for their resilience.
As early as 2013, on August 15, Abe stopped expressing his “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology.” He replaced “colonial rule and aggression” in the Murayama statement with the milder “Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war” causing “immeasurable damage and suffering.” The main focus shifted away from Japan’s victims to turning the war into a positive transformation where “the peace and prosperity that we now enjoy have been built upon the sacrifices of you who gave up your precious lives.” And the four mentions of unfortunate history in the Murayama statement were reduced to just one promising blandly to “face history with humility and engrave deeply into our hearts the lessons that we should learn.”
Abe tried to codify these changes with a Cabinet-approved statement issued the day before the 2015 August 15th memorial. He explained that his Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century had reevaluated Japan’s post-war period. The conclusion was that today’s Japanese are not “predestined to apologize.” Instead, “Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past” only because the peace enjoyed today “exists only upon such precious sacrifices” that are “the origin of postwar Japan.”
Abe’s last memorial statement was in 2020 for the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender ending World War II. It made no reference to history or remorse at all. The pledge to take “the lessons of history deeply into our hearts” vanished. In its place, Abe introduced a new, “forward-looking” phrase – that Japan was ready to make a “proactive contribution to peace.”
In 2021, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide substantially repeated Abe’s 2020 reconstruction of Japan’s war apology. History remained now only with the Japanese. Like his predecessor, Suga insisted that the lesson learned from WWII was “We will not forget, even for a moment, that the peace and prosperity we enjoy today was built atop the precious lives and the history of suffering of the war dead. I express my deepest respect and gratitude once more.”
Come August 15, Kishida has a decision to make. He can choose to accept Abe’s unrepentant, nationalistic war remembrance. This would of course please the Abe faction and revisionist pressure organization Nippon Kaigi, whose legislative wing includes Kishida and most of the members of his new Cabinet.
Or Kishida, a legislator from Hiroshima, can reassert the centrality of the Murayama statement and the honest, forthright contrition it represents. If he does so, he would send a powerful signal to South Korea and Imperial Japan’s other victims that Japan is willing to confront its dark history.