12.03.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Angela Merkel’s Visit to Japan: the Aspect of Recent History

G45435345German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “blitz visit” to Japan on March 9-10 garnered interest on various aspects. Only an urgent need for communication with her colleague Shinzo Abe could prompt Frau Chancellor to spend 24 hours in the air and cover about 20,000 km during that time. That being said, she only spent about 30 hours in Japan.

In anticipation of the next G-7 summit that will be held in June 2015 in Germany, the leaders of the third and fourth economies in the world evidently believed it necessary to pursue political and economic matters.

The German government, who is a staunch believer in the principle of strict international discipline, currently has questions on the financial components of the economic policy (i.e. “Abenomics”) of the current Japanese administration.

Spearheading the global movement for a complete rejection of nuclear power after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Angela Merkel campaigned for the Japanese to follow Germany’s example in an effort to replace decommissioned nuclear power stations with renewable energy technologies.

The Ukrainian crisis and relations with Russia were a prominent part of the bilateral discussions on foreign policy. On that note, Japan is considered the weakest link in the anti-Russian coalition of western countries that the United States are attempting to build.

Both countries are committed to being a part of the future “renewed” United Nations Security Council as permanent members. Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, the debate on this topic seems to be unavoidable for the Security Council’s five permanent members.

This meeting between the leaders of one-time allies had a special importance in the year that marks exactly 70 years since the end of World War II when they suffered a catastrophic defeat. That explains the fact that the topic of the Security Council wasn’t a priority in the matters discussed by Merkel and Abe.

The severity of the ancient maxim “woe to the vanquished” was fully experienced by both losers in the largest massacre in world history. The “costs” that they suffered were not only material but also moral in character. As are usual in such cases, both parties were “guilty of all” that had preceded and accompanied the Second World War.

And even if the Japanese and German material losses have long been overcome and these two countries are today among the world’s economic and political leaders, the cycle of blame for the real and dubious crimes of the war follows them even today. In the course of the upcoming commemorative events the leaders of both countries have the opportunity to say something comprehensible that would be acceptable to the “world community”.

In this respect, the situation with Germany is quite simple: repent for words said long ago, repay various kinds of debts to its victims and repeat today’s mantra of “forgetting the criminal past of Germany is unacceptable” until the leaders of the “world community” say “OK”.

At the same time, things are much more complicated with Japan, as was indicated by Shinzo Abe’s statement that his country “will not go the way of Germany” in dealing with its military past. This was pronounced in Germany during a tour of the Japanese prime minister to a number of European countries in the spring of 2014. His statement made a lot of noise in East-Asian countries where claims are made for Japan to take responsibility for its wartime history.

China and South Korea would like to hear an unequivocal official apology from Tokyo apropos certain “episodes” during that time, for example, such as those known in said countries as the Nanking Massacre and the issue of “comfort women”.

On March 1st of this year, the South Korean president Park Geun-hye in turn urged Japan to apologize for its practice of “sexual slavery” during World War II. China also expects Japan to follow the “recommendations” on similar topics.

As a matter of fact top Japanese officials already assessed the 30s-40s in Japan’s history of the last century in the mid-90s (in general and in particular). The simple interpretation would probably be quite satisfactory to both China and South Korea today.

Yet the fact that Shinzo Abe, during his first premiership (2006-2007), expressed the views of a very influential part of the Japanese establishment gave way to a “revisionist” position on the assessments made in the 90s. This coincided with the development of a “normalization” process of Japan and the planned (inevitable) removal of the famous “anti-war” Article 9 clause from the 1947 Constitution.

It is the mentioned coincidence and not the “historical revisionism” in itself that is actually alarming to Seoul and Beijing. At the same time it is impossible to place all the blame on Japan for the general deterioration of the situation in Northeast Asia. As much as one wants to try.

But this is about the commemorative events and what the leader of modern Japan is supposed to say. The further development of the situation in Northeast Asia will depend in a substantial way on what he says. The “cost issue” is so high that the Japanese government formed a special committee on February 19 for the purpose of creating the perfect response for Shinzo Abe next time he speaks on the matter.

He will be closely watched during this time not only by Seoul and Beijing but also by Washington who can in no way become involved in a military confrontation with China over trivial reasons. It is one thing to pursue policy on strategic deterrence and quite another entirely to wage war because of five uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands situated 12,000 km from the American coast.

Therefore, the USA is strongly pushing its key ally to “display an understanding sentiment to its neighbors” in the official assessment of Japan’s recent history. A group of American public figures wrote a collective letter in which it was regarded as an “unacceptable interference of a foreign state” after the Japanese ambassador in Washington advised the authors in the process of writing a new history textbook for secondary schools in the United States to “amend” the figure of  200,000 “comfort women”.

Already in her first public speech Angela Merkel (almost verbatim to the rhetoric of Washington) urged Japan to “reduce tensions with its neighbors” referring to the experiences of post-war France and Germany.

It is important, however, to note a fundamental difference in the present situation that has formed around the two former allies today that can prevent the perception needed for Angela Merkel (more precisely to stand up for “big brother”) to support her “explanatory outreach” in Japan.

Despite the best efforts of the Kiev clowns in the current Ukrainian circus, painting Russia as the main threat to peace to the “civilized world”, the mantra that Russian tanks “after Kiev will be in Berlin” can only be perceived as absolutely idiotic in Germany. That is why Germany continues to coldly react to frequent calls from “big brother” to increase their level of military spending.

This is not the case with Japan. According to the latest opinion polls, the Japanese political elite’s fear of the consequences of the overall growth of China is gradually spreading among the nation’s population. Therefore the number of supporters who sees the need for an increase in the potential of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) is growing.

A government public opinion survey conducted on 8-18 January 2015 indicated that 30% of Japanese are supportive of the reinforcement of the SDF, more than double versus 2009. At the same time support has dropped (by one and a half times) for the policy of development relations not only with China but also with South Korea

The extent of success that Merkel’s “outreach” will have “among” its erstwhile ally will be judged on the content of the final document issued of Japan’s assessment of its history during World War II that is being prepared by the government committee.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.