In Japan’s diplomatic war of words with China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has armed his troops with pens that often don’t write straight.
Since Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine late last year, Japanese and Chinese diplomats have battled in the opinion pages of local newspapers in at least 12 countries around the world. Judging by the number of commentaries and editorials highly-critical of Abe that have appeared in media otherwise friendly toward Japan, Tokyo’s public relations blitz has been ineffective; Japan is taking quite a beating.
Japanese officials have had little trouble countering the overheated charges from their Chinese counterparts that Abe is leading Japan down the path of revived ‘militarism.’ Abe has barely reversed years of declining defense spending in Japan, and the country’s plans for modest, incremental enhancement of its regional security roles and missions bear scant resemblance to a nation preparing to threaten its neighbors.
Moreover, as Japanese officials have emphasized, it is China that has aggravated regional anxieties with galloping increases in defense spending, aggressive territorial claims, and worrisome unilateral actions such as the declaration last year of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea.
The problem for Japanese diplomats has come in defending Abe’s words and actions, particularly the justifications for last year’s Yasukuni visit repeatedly stated by Cabinet members, leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and by Abe himself.
The dilemma faced by Japan’s diplomats is that the talking points provided by the prime minister’s office don’t stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, the entire episode is eerily similar to 2007, during Abe’s first term as prime minister, when Japan was showered with criticism over comments by Abe that seemed designed to mitigate the cruelty of the “comfort women” system run by Japan’s military forces in war zones in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Revisionism” enters the Kantei
From the earliest days of his political career, Shinzo Abe has closely aligned himself with individuals and organizations that promote the “revisionist” perspective on Japan’s wartime and postwar history. Among the views that tend to unite the “revisionists”: Japan did not colonize Korea, but legally assumed control of the country; Japan did not “invade” or engage in “aggression” in China, but merely “advanced” into the country; the Nanjing massacre either did not occur, or has been greatly exaggerated; the “Greater East Asia War” (including the attack on Pearl Harbor) was an act of self-defense on Japan’s part, and a war to liberate Asia from European and American imperialism; the “comfort women” system did not involve coercion, and, in any case, was not much different from the conduct of other militaries in war zones; the Tokyo War Tribunal was an exercise in “victor’s justice,” and the 14 individuals convicted of war crimes by the Tribunal who are now interred at Yasukuni Shrine are not really war criminals; Japan’s postwar Constitution, rooted in the “victor’s justice” rendition of the war, effectively deprives Japan of full sovereignty and honor, and keeps the country languishing in a subservient intellectual and cultural identity.
The dilemma for Japanese officials is that the “revisionist” perspective on history, which Abe has enthusiastically promoted in the past, runs counter to the entire thrust of Japan’s postwar order, which rests on the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, and the Constitution.
Diplomats also know that “revisionists” like Abe challenge two seminal policy statements that remain cornerstones of the country’s diplomacy.
One is the 1993 Kono Statement, in which Japan acknowledged that its wartime armed forces established and oversaw a coercive system of “comfort stations” where women ensnared in the scheme were under duress to provide sexual “services” to Japanese military personnel.
The other is the 1995 Murayama Statement, in which Japan acknowledged “remorse” for having pursued a “mistaken national policy” in the wartime years that led to “tremendous damage” in Asia as a result of “colonial rule and aggression.”
Beyond the many specific statements Abe has made that are consistent with the “revisionist” perspective, he also is known to revere his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was a critical figure in the wartime cabinet of General Hideki Tojo. Kishi was arrested after the war as a suspected war criminal, but was released before trial, and later served as prime minister.
Abe has never publicly questioned the policies pursued by Kishi in China, where he was an architect of Japanese policy, nor those Kishi pursued while serving in Tojo’s cabinet.
Abe seems trapped in a mental construct in which his desired revival of patriotism and pride in Japan is dependent on at least a partial rehabilitation of Japan’s wartime policies and leaders.
The contrast with former prime ministers Morihiro Hosokawa and Junichiro Koizumi is telling. Hosokowa’s grandfather, Fumimaro Konoe, also served as wartime prime minister, and is widely-seen by historians as bearing huge responsibility for the aggressive policies that ultimately led to Japan’s destruction. Hosokawa’s father served as Konoe’s personal secretary, and Hosokawa describes epic arguments in which he challenged his father that Konoe did not have “the backbone” to stand up to the military at that time.
Koizumi, for his part, made repeated visits to Yasukuni during his five years as prime minister, but never associated himself with revisionism. He recently talked about how bureaucracies often have a hard time breaking from entrenched policies, and resort to lying about ensuing mistakes. He unexpectedly used as an example the inability or unwillingness of Japan’s wartime leaders to withdraw from Manchuria so as to forestall a broader, calamitous conflict. “Manchuria was said to be Japan’s lifeline,” Koizumi said. “But look at Japan now. We’ve grown and prospered without Manchuria.” Koizumi left the obvious unsaid: Abe’s revered grandfather Kishi played a key role in Japan’s ultimately disastrous policies in Manchuria.
The contradiction between Abe’s adherence to historical “revisionism” and Japan’s established postwar policies poses a huge predicament for Japanese diplomats obligated to “explain” the prime minister’s actions and policies.
The Cabinet insists that the Abe administration has “inherited” the Kono and Murayama statements, and will “honor” (adhere to) them.
In practice, the predicament remains unresolved because Abe refuses to put his personal stamp of approval on the findings of the Tokyo War Tribunal, the Kono Statement, or the Murayama Statement.
Thus, the public relations and diplomatic debacle that now afflicts Japan.
Questions for Abe
The predicament is captured in four questions:
- Is a visit to Yasukuni Shrine the only way for Abe to pay his respect to Japan’s war-dead?
- Does Abe sincerely believe in the Murayama Statement?
- Does Abe really believe in the Kono Statement?
- Does Abe really accept the judgments of the Tokyo War Tribunal?
The weight of Abe’s past statements, and recent comments and actions, make it pretty clear that the answer to all four questions is “no.”
Yasukuni: Prime Minister Abe is surely aware that moderates within his own LDP have long-argued for construction of a secular, national monument to Japan’s war-dead, where Japanese and foreigners alike could pay their respects. Abe has consistently opposed the effort. There is an alternative to Yasukuni; Abe has helped block it.
Murayama Statement: The core of the 1995 statement by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, is use of the words “aggression” and “colonial rule.” It is a tenet of revisionism to never utter those words with reference to Japan’s wartime history – a stricture to which Abe faithfully adheres. In his December 26 statement accompanying his visit to Yasukuni, Abe expressed “remorse for the past,” but did not specify what exactly prompts the remorse. That left Japan’s respected ambassador in Washington, Kenichiro Sasae, having to resort to an awkward ‘double-negative’ in his January 16th guest commentary in the Washington Post: the Prime Minister, he wrote, “has never said that Japan did not commit aggression.”
Kono Statement: There is no “revisionist” cause to which Abe has shown more personal commitment than efforts to “review” the 1993 Kono Statement on “comfort women.” As late as November 2012, shortly before the start of his second term as prime minister, Abe signed a petition by Japanese lawmakers denying the essential points of the Kono Statement. On February 20, Abe’s right hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, told the Diet that the government was open to the idea of a reexamination of critical details of the Kono Statement, especially testimony by 16 former “comfort women” provided to Japanese government researchers in preparation of the statement.
Tokyo War Tribunal: Ambassador Sasae wrote in the Washington Post that “Prime Minister Abe has accepted the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.” (The wording is from Article 11 of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.) But there is no public record of Abe having personally made such an unambiguous statement in his own words. To the contrary, Abe gave a glimpse of his real thinking on the issue during a January talk with reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he described those convicted of war crimes by the Tribunal as “so-called war criminals.”
No one more than Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has borne the burden of having to square Prime Minister Abe’s revisionist views with established Japanese policies.
A lengthy January 14 press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs captured Kishida’s quandary. The minister was repeatedly asked to clarify Abe’s stance on history issues, including this agitated request: “Can you articulate here, once again as the Foreign Minister, that the war was indeed a war of aggression?”
Kishida replied: “I believe that the Prime Minister uses various wordings on each occasion. However, at the basic level, as I have mentioned, the entire position outlined by previous administrations is continued by the Abe Cabinet.”
Under the watchful eye of the prime minister’s inner circle, no government spokesman under Abe will quote the actual wording of the Murayama Statement – “aggression” or “colonial rule.”
To the contrary, Kishida, like Ambassador Sasae two days later, resorted to an awkward double-negative: “In addition,” he told the January 14 press conference, “the Abe Cabinet has never denied the past Cabinets’ statements, such as the Kono Statement or the Murayama Statement.”
Earlier this month, Kishida took his predicament to Washington, DC, where he tried to counter the considerable frustration with Abe in the US capital during meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
Kishida also hosted a private dinner with a small group of influential Japan specialists, including former US ambassador to Japan Tom Schieffer; former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; former National Security Council Asia specialists Doug Paal and Jeff Bader; former US trade negotiator Glen Fukushima; John Hamre of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security.
Cronin later wrote that Kishida “made it clear that he understands that the Yasukuni Shrine visit, not to mention some outrageous remarks by the Chairman and a Governor of [national broadcaster] NHK, were undermining Abe’s security and economic agenda and the US-Japan alliance. If Japan were not more careful, Japan could find itself far more isolated.”
Since that February 7th dinner, the Abe Cabinet has done little to stem the tide toward greater isolation.