Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will speak to a joint meeting of the US Congress on April 29, marking the first time Japan’s top political leader will address the full US national legislature. The speech will carry enormous symbolism; Abe will speak from the rostrum of the House of Representatives, from which Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan in 1941 in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year. The US and Japan have long been reconciled, of course, with a post-war bilateral security alliance that continues to form the bedrock of stability in East Asia. But Abe has a testy relationship with his leadership counterparts in China and South Korea, and both countries will be listening carefully to hear if and how he addresses lingering animosities about Japan’s historical role in the region.
Many analysts in Washington expect (and some have recommended) that Abe will model his upcoming address to Congress on the talk he delivered to the Australian parliament in capital-city Canberra in July of last year. Abe effectively referenced two incidents of severe mistreatment of Australian prisoners-of-war during World War II that had long been thorns-in-the-side of Japan-Australia relations. The Bataan ‘Death March’ of 1942, in which hundreds of American POWs died in Japan-occupied Philippines, conjures up similar emotions in the United States. In 2009, Japan officially apologized for that mistreatment of captured American soldiers. Japan’s prime minister at that time, Taro Aso, was under some pressure in part because his family’s lucrative coal mining business used US POWs as forced-laborers during World War II. (Aso is now Japan’s finance minister.)
Whether Abe really apologized to Australians on behalf of Japan, or merely commiserated about a shared bitter experience, remains a matter of contention. And his Canberra comments made no reference to China, Korea, or any other country in East Asia, leaving unanswered whether he really agrees with his predecessors Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi, who stated unambiguously in 1995 and 2005 respectively that Japan adopted a “mistaken national policy” that resulted in “aggression” and “colonial rule” in the first half of last century.
While stating that he agrees with his predecessors “on the whole,” Abe himself has never used the most important operative words from those past apologies that Chinese and Korean officials consider a litmus test of his views and intentions.
Unresolved history issues between Japan and Korea – key US allies – continue to complicate American diplomacy in East Asia, making Prime Minister Abe’s upcoming address to Congress, and his planned statement in August marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, particularly important.
To discuss Abe’s ‘Canberra Strategy,’ we turned to Tessa Morris-Suzuki, one of Australia’s top specialists on Japan. Morris-Suzuki is professor of Japanese history at Australian National University, and author of East Asia Beyond the History Wars. She is past president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.
Morris-Suzuki: ‘Prime Minister Abe
is deliberately ambiguous about apologies’
DISPATCH JAPAN: Was Prime Minister Abe’s “Canberra” speech last year well-received in Australia?
MORRIS-SUZUKI: The prime minister’s speech made headline news and attracted some media debate at the time, but its long- term impact on Australian views of Japan appears to have been quite small. It is difficult to say whether this impact was positive or negative. A number of media, business, and political commentators praised Abe’s words of condolence for the Australian servicemen killed in World War II, but much of the discussion in letters-to-the-editor of major newspapers was critical. The event also attracted public criticism from Australia’s main veterans’ organization, the Returned and Services League. An interesting note is that much of the criticism focused on Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who replied by praising the skill and sense of honor shown by Japanese troops during the war. This was widely criticized by veterans and others, who argued that Japan’s wartime treatment of prisoners of war was not honorable.
MORRIS-SUZUKI: Abe began his speech by referring to Sandakan and Kokoda. Sandakan in Borneo is the site of a death march during which some 1,000 Australian soldiers were killed or died of starvation, disease, and exhaustion. The Kokoda track over the mountains of Papua New Guinea was the site of crucial and fierce battles between Australian and Japanese forces, in which some 600 Australian soldiers were killed.
It is worth noting that although Abe mentioned the place name Sandakan, he did not use the term “death march”. These two sites, and particularly Kokoda, have become key symbols of the sufferings of Australian soldiers during the Pacific War. Monuments to the Kokoda track exist in many parts of Australia, and some Australians still visit the track to reenact the march over its rugged terrain.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Did Australians receive Abe’s comments as an apology? He seemed to speak somewhat in the passive tense – “regretting” that terrible things happened, but not acknowledging responsibility on the part of Japan.
MORRIS-SUZUKI: Most commentators noted that Abe expressed condolences but not apology. In fact, Abe’s speech presented the war, not as an event for which Japan should apologize, but rather as a part of history which Australia and Japan share. He spoke of “our fathers and grandfathers” -- both Japanese and Australian -- experiencing the events of Sandakan and Kokoda, and went on to speak of the Japanese naval officers killed in an attempted midget submarine attack on Sydney harbor. He recalled how Australia had invited the mother of one of the dead to visit Sydney for a memorial ceremony, and then quoted the words of former Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies: “Hostility to Japan must go. It is better to hope than always to remember.” The clear message was, “We all suffered similarly during the war. We should let bygones be bygones.”
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe seemed perhaps more ready to reconcile with Australia than with China or Korea?
MORRIS-SUZUKI: I look at this in strategic terms. Abe wishes as far as possible to avoid making any direct apologies or acknowledgments of wrongs committed by the Japanese military during the war. But at the same time his strategy is to deepen the military alliance with the United States and forge new and deep military and intelligence alliances with countries like Australia. In order to combine these two aims, he and his advisers choose words very carefully to try to smooth over concerns about memories of the war without directly addressing or apologizing for the events of the past.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe says he upholds the Murayama and Kono statements “as a whole.” To you, what does that mean?
MORRIS-SUZUKI: This is a phrase devised to confuse and blur the meaning of Abe’s stance on the issues of war responsibility and apology. It is a deliberately ambiguous phrase which enables him to avoid saying whether he accepts words such as “aggression” and “apology” contained in the Murayama statement, and to avoid reconfirming the Kono statement’s acknowledgment that “comfort women” were recruited by coercion.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you anticipate the prime minister will say in his August 15 statement, marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific?
MORRIS-SUZUKI: I think it likely that he will use two verbal strategies in an effort to appease international (particularly US) opinion, while at the same time avoiding making a direct statement of apology about the war. First, he will express a personal sense of pain at the memory of the war. In many recent statements, including his Canberra speech, Abe has spoken of his sadness and heartache at this memory. These words present the prime minister to the world as being a compassionate and caring person, but at the same time avoid any notion of historical responsibility. The second strategy is to use the word “反省” [hansei - best translated as “reconsideration” or “self-questioning”] in his statement in Japanese, but to translate this into English as “remorse”. The word “remorse” in English has a much stronger meaning than “反省” in Japanese (and would most commonly be rendered in Japanese as 後悔 [kōkai]or 自責の念 [jiseki no nen]). In the Murayama and Koizumi statements, the word “反省” was also translated into English as “remorse”, but was followed by the words お詫びの気持ち[owabi no kimochi - a feeling of apology]. If Abe uses the word 反省 (translated as remorse) but not the word お詫び (apology), he will convey to English speaking audiences the impression that he is apologizing, but will make it clear to those who read his statement in Japanese, Korean or Chinese is that he is merely expressing 反省 and not お詫び.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How will Korea react if PM Abe omits the wording of the Murayama Statement – “aggression,” “colonial rule,” and “mistaken national policy”?
MORRIS-SUZUKI: I am deeply concerned about the likely impact of Abe’s 70th anniversary statement. If he uses the verbal strategies I have mentioned, these will not only fail to ease the painful memories of many people in Korea, China and elsewhere, but also deepen misunderstandings between East Asian countries and the English-speaking world. Many Americans and others, hearing the word “remorse”, will think that Abe has issued an apology, and fail to understand why Chinese and Koreans are still dissatisfied. In short, I am concerned that Abe and his advisors may be planning to use verbal games to send one message to the English speaking world and another to East Asian countries, including Japan itself. The terrible events of the Pacific War should be recalled with sincerity, honesty and directness, not with word games.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you think Abe a transformational figure, leading and reflecting fundamental changes in Japan?
MORRIS-SUZUKI: The Abe administration has already changed Japan in important ways through alterations to military strategy, state control of information, educational guidelines, trade and energy policy and other matters. In this sense Abe is a transformational figure; but it still too early to say whether he will succeed in carrying out the further and even more fundamental transformations, including changes to the constitution, which remain on his policy agenda.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Why does the Abe Cabinet receive high marks in public opinion polls, but low marks for its major policies?
MORRIS-SUZUKI: Public opinion is still reacting to the sense of crisis and absence of leadership which followed the triple disaster of March, 2011. Many people in Japan feel a profound sense of insecurity because of the ongoing aftermath of the disaster, the continuing weakness of the Japanese economy and the rise of China. In this situation, Abe’s large and simple statements about Japan’s revival and national pride are reassuring. Many people also still pin hopes on the future effects of Abenomics, even though, after two-and-a-half years, no significant positive impact on economic fundamentals or on the lives of ordinary Japanese people has yet been seen.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there a thought-out, realistic national strategy underlying “revisionism,” or is it more of a romantic whim about Japan.
MORRIS-SUZUKI: I believe that this is driven by emotion and ideology, not by political realism. A more realistic political strategy would positively and creatively address the concerns of China, Korea, and other Asian neighbors, since Japan’s long-term economic and security future rely on good relations with its neighbors. Revisionism is also creating deepening divisions within Japanese society itself. At a grassroots popular level, Japan has a fine history of efforts to seek reconciliation with neighboring countries and address problems of war responsibility. A more realistic national policy would build on these grassroots achievements, rather than ostracizing and marginalizing ordinary Japanese people who have worked so hard for reconciliation.