Emperor Akihito raised many an eyebrow in Japan and abroad recently when he used his New Year message to urge Japan’s citizens to learn from history in this, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. He specifically referred to the Manchurian Incident of 1931 as the start of the war, which many saw as a not-so-veiled swipe at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and other advocates of a ‘revisionist’ view of history, who have tried to diminish Japan responsibility for the hostilities in the Pacific that ultimately led to Japan’s destruction and surrender in 1945. The Emperor’s comment was initially overshadowed by the New Year’s festivities in Japan, but subsequently provoked a subdued but charged debate in intellectual and policy circles.
Below is part two of our discussion about the controversy and its potential policy implications with Tokyo-based commentator Jeff Kingston.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, where he teaches courses on modern Japanese history, contemporary Japan, and Japan’s relations with Asia. He has been a regular contributor to The Japan Times since 1988. Kingston’s most recent book, Contemporary Japan, was published in 2012. He has a B.S. degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, and a PhD. in history from Columbia University.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Could the Emperor’s comments influence how Japan observes the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII?
KINGSTON: 2015 marks that anniversary. Due to Prime Minister Abe’s revisionist views on history, there is considerable speculation about the statement regarding Japan’s wartime responsibility he plans to issue later this year. He could raise regional hackles by downplaying or appearing to justify the tragedies that Imperial Japan inflicted throughout Asia. Abe absented himself from the Diet in June 1995 when it passed a resolution on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. He has never made a secret of his discomfort with the Murayama Statement, issued in August of that year by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, which went much further in acknowledging Japan’s war responsibility and broadly apologizing for the horrific consequences of its aggression than the ’95 Diet resolution that Abe did not support.
Abe is no stranger to controversy regarding Japan’s colonial and wartime history. He offended Koreans by remarks he made in the Diet on March 1, 2007 that suggested he was quibbling about the level of coercion used in recruiting young women and girls to serve as sex slaves for the Imperial Armed Forces. March 1st is the day Koreans commemorate the 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule, so the timing of his remarks was unfortunate.
In 2010, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a poignant statement marking the centennial of the onset of Japanese colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, acknowledging and expressing remorse that Japan had injured the dignity of the Korean people. Abe angrily dismissed the remarks as ignorant.
Abe has regularly meddled in history issues. When he was premier in 2006-07 he spearheaded legislation promoting ‘patriotic education’. The Education Ministry pressured textbook publishers to delete accounts of Japan’s soldiers instigating group suicides during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, sparking an angry backlash by Okinawans. Last year, the Ministry of Education issued guidelines for textbook publishers on other controversial history issues. At the end of the year, consulate officials in New York requested that editors at McGraw Hill revise textbook entries concerning comfort women that the Japanese government deems inaccurate. McGraw-Hill declined, arguing that the Abe Cabinet’s view is at odds with the scholarly consensus, and that the Japanese government has no business dictating textbook content.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The Abe Cabinet says it abides by past government apologies to comfort women, but seems to undercut its expressions of contrition.
KINGSTON: Abe’s comfort women problem, including the building of comfort women memorials in the United States, is a self-inflicted wound based on a disingenuous disregard for the facts. The 1993 Kono Statement, in which Japan apologized to comfort women, symbolizes the end of Japan’s collective amnesia about state responsibility for the comfort women system. The statement vastly improved Japan’s reputation. It’s no surprise then that Abe’s repeated acts of sabotage against the Kono Statement inflict considerable harm on Japan’s international standing, and raises questions about his judgment.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Did Asahi Shimbun’s acknowledgement last year of some mistaken reporting on the comfort women issue strengthen Abe’s argument?
KINGSTON: Asahi’s faulty reporting infected only a handful of articles two decades ago. The 2007 U.S. Congressional resolution H Res 121, which condemned Abe for his comfort women remarks, did not depend on the Asahi’s reporting. H Res 121 was based on the volumes of evidence amassed over the years that implicated Japan’s military and government in the comfort women system.
Ironically, it is Abe, not the Asahi, who incited the building of comfort women memorials in four towns in the United States. Korean-Americans lobbying to erect these memorials were reacting to his controversial 2007 statements. One of the key organizations promoting the memorials named itself “121″ in reference to the congressional resolution.
Abe’s recent grandstanding makes it look like Japan is trying to wriggle out of taking responsibility for the horrors it inflicted on comfort women. In the 21st century, violence against women in war is a significant international concern, one shared by civil society groups in Japan. Japan could gain so much by unequivocally accepting responsibility, officially apologizing, and legally atoning for ruining these women’s lives, while leading a global effort to address this contemporary scourge.
Instead, Abe has positioned Japan to get steamrollered by the international community on this issue, while making things awkward for Japan’s friends, who do not want to be associated with his dubious equivocations.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will the Emperor’s comments have tangible implications or repercussions?
KINGSTON: Akihito speaks with great moral authority. This was demonstrated in Prime Minister Abe’s first news conference of 2015, held at the Ise Shrine on Jan. 5, when he seemingly responded to the emperor’s thoughts. Abe said he would express remorse in his 70th year anniversary statement, and highlight the nation’s postwar pacifist contributions to peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific. He reiterated previous pledges to uphold the Murayama Statement.
At one level, Abe’s Ise remarks suggest he understands the importance of Akihito’s comments. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has left the door open to the possibility of some revision of past statements.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What are the specific concerns?
KINGSTON: Worries about the 70th anniversary statement are related to Abe’s 2013 statement on the August 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender. He expressed no remorse about Japan’s aggression in Asia and did not pledge to renounce war.
These omissions marked significant deviations from the Murayama Statement, in which Murayama acknowledged that Japan caused “tremendous damage and suffering” to the people of Asia and other countries through its “colonial rule and aggression,” and he expressed “feelings of deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology.” This statement has become the government’s official position on WWII, a mantra that has been frequently invoked since then.
We can see intensified scrutiny of Abe’s intentions. For example, the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) just issued a report about the impending Abe Statement, highlighting the risk for stoking regional animosities over unresolved historical grievances if he deviates too far from the Murayama script. This would undermine US efforts to nurture more effective trilateral security relations with South Korea and Japan and needlessly provoke China.
The CRS noted Abe’s role in commissioning a government panel to investigate how the 1993 Kono Statement on comfort women was compiled, an apparent effort to discredit that statement. In addition, the CRS cited Abe’s comments in the Diet in 2013 when he suggested that the word ‘invasion’ is open to interpretation. Previously, in April 2013 remarks in the Diet, Abe was also equivocal about the term ‘aggression’ and said he did not uphold all of Murayama’s statement. This sophistry has drawn criticism in the region because it smacks of Abe shirking Japanese wartime responsibility by fudging what Japan’s military did at that time.
DISPATCH JAPAN: So the Emperor’s explicit reference to the Manchuria Incident most likely was not made lightly, or without cognizance of the implications for policy debates today between nationalists and more mainstream political circles?
KINGSTON: Not likely. The Manchurian Incident is seen as a turning point where Japan renounced working within the international system and decided to pursue its interests in China through military aggression. Many argue that the Kwantung Army hijacked Japan and defied official government policy by instigating hostilities and subjugating Manchuria. This open defiance of civilian control signaled the military’s willingness to take matters into its own hands, and precipitated Japan’s slide towards authoritarianism at home and aggression overseas.
The 1930s is often called the valley of darkness by scholars, a time of rightwing extremist violence targeting liberals, notably Prime Minister Inukai in 1932 for supporting the London Naval Treaty, trying to cut the military budget, and for initially withholding formal diplomatic recognition of the puppet state of Manchukuo sponsored by the Kwantung Army.
The Manchurian Incident thus marks the beginning of Japan’s rampage in Asia, a self-inflicted catastrophe that lead to all the suffering Akihito detailed in his New Year thoughts.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How would you characterize the reaction to the Emperor’s message? It seemed to take a while for people to really take notice.
KINGSTON: The reaction has been muted in the media, and I am not sure how many people took notice. This is not unusual. But Akihito is called the “people’s emperor” because he has an exemplary record of offering consolation and compassion to those in need. He attended the sumo tournament for the first time in four years on Jan. 18, and as he bid farewell the entire crowd, unprompted, stood and cheered as he and the Empress waved. This sign of deep affection says something about his stature.
Akihito’s thoughts voice the anxieties of many Japanese about Abe steering Japan rightward, and where that might lead. The LDP’s victory in the December 2014 lower house elections was more an indictment of the opposition than an endorsement of Abe and his non-economic agenda, but now he is in a position to realize his ideological bucket list. In this sense, I think the Emperor was speaking truth to power.
One strength of the Japanese media is the willingness to debate historical controversies, even if the results are not always edifying. The past still divides Japan from its neighbors 70 years later. Many Japanese are suffering from perpetrator’s fatigue, and are dismayed that Beijing and Seoul relentlessly hammer Japan on the anvil of history. Efforts in Japan to hastily bury the unexamined past are certainly a factor stoking nationalist passions, but it is also clear that the neighbors cynically play the history card for political and diplomatic advantage.
In the current anti-liberal climate, many writers are reluctant to make themselves into a target of scary groups that intimidate, harass and sometimes resort to violence to silence discordant voices. It is disconcerting that conservative mainstream politicians have links to extremist and criminal groups that contribute to the atmosphere of intimidation.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Why has the Democratic Party of Japan not been more vocal on history issues, and the policy implications for national security, including ties with South Korea and China?
KINGSTON: The DPJ is in shambles following its disastrous setback in the 2012 elections and its mediocre performance last December.
The DPJ remains a party looking for an identity, deeply divided over policy, with members representing much of the ideological spectrum from left to right. Hammering out a unified position on any issue has been difficult, as we can see in the party leader elections narrowly won recently by Katsuya Okada in a runoff.
I think members from the left of the party would prefer the DPJ to stake out a more liberal view on history controversies, but under current circumstances that might spark a harmful backlash for a party that is on the ropes.
Recall that former premier Yukio Hatoyama was roundly criticized by the media for his comments about China having a point in its assertion that there is a bilateral dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and was even labeled a traitor by Itsunori Onodera, the defense minister appointed by Abe in 2012. Hatoyama’s gesture of reconciliation toward China at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial also did not go over well in Japan.
The DPJ did try to resolve one of the thorniest issues dividing Tokyo and Seoul, nearly finalizing a deal on the comfort women, but it unraveled in December 2012. Under the terms of this agreement, the Japanese Ambassador to South Korea would have visited the home of each surviving comfort woman and delivered a letter of apology from the prime minister, in addition to monetary compensation.
The hitch was whether Japan would accept legal responsibility for the colonial era abuses. The Japanese side was willing to accept moral responsibility in making this humanitarian gesture of atonement and reconciliation, but was adamant that it would not accept legal responsibility.
This last minute failure has sparked recriminations and a sense of betrayal on both sides.
Off the record, Japanese diplomats complain that the South Korean government moved the goalposts at the last moment, requiring an admission of legal responsibility, when the deal was nearly finalized. Korean diplomats, also requesting anonymity, argue that a carefully calibrated agreement shirking legal responsibility falls short of the grand gesture required to restore dignity to the comfort women and the nation, and therefore could not compromise on this point.
And then Abe was elected. All bets were off.