On August 14 the world witnessed one of those rare milestone events, based on which the trends for the further development of relations in the strategic triangle “US-China-Japan” and, therefore, of the situation in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole can be forecast.
We are referring to the speech of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the End of the Pacific War, which the Japanese associate with the date (the night of 14-15 August, 1945) when Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan had accepted the surrender terms, stipulated by the United States, Great Britain and China three weeks earlier in the Potsdam Declaration.
The content of Abe’s speech will directly impact the Sino-Japanese arm of the “US-China-Japan” triangle and indirectly—the other two.
In China, the positive development of relations with Japan is associated with the current confirmation of the main provisions of the so-called “Murayama Statement”, made in 1995 by the then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to mark the 50th anniversary of the End of the Pacific War. The statement included three main points: acknowledgement of exercise by Japan of the colonial policy of aggression against its neighbors in Asia, causing them to suffer tremendous losses at that time and expressing its “sincere remorse” for the admitted crimes.
Abe’s “Historical Revisionism,” which digresses from the provisions of the “Murayama Statement,” had started manifesting itself as early as 2006-2007, i.e., during his first premiership.
However, as the anniversary year of the End of the Pacific War came closer, the “value” of the Japan’s assessment of its participation in this massacre has gone up by so much that in February 2015 the government decided to establish a temporary special committee of eminent experts to make recommendations on the future public speeches of the Prime Minister on the issue.
The Committee had prepared a final report that was published a week before Abe’s speech. The title of the document is a marvel in its own right (“Report of the Group of Advisers on the History of the 20th Century and the Role of Japan in it as well as in the World Order of the 21th Century“. Apparently, the title failed to reflect the political passions ignited six months earlier.
Then, what were they locking horns over? How will the Committee address the political needs of Japan’s neighbors, which are expressed in the demand for the basic provisions of the “Murayama statement” to be reconfirmed? But the title of the report lacks a slightest allusion to this issue, perceived by China and South Korea as the key point.
As for the report’s content—40 pages of extremely rich text (which deserve to be discussed separately)—only two or three pages of it are devoted to the current Japan’s stance on the causes of the Pacific War (being a part of World War II), formulated from the prospective of the historical process of the first half of the 20th century.
The “Murayama Statement” is mentioned alongside a number of other events of the postwar history of Japan, which is discussed in every little detail throughout the remaining pages. The authors of the document focused on the process of establishment of “a completely new Japan” after the end of the Pacific War as well as on the assessment of relations with the key neighbors, which the country has mutual business with, and on the local and global challenges of the 21st century.
Actually, the title and structure of the document fully coincide with the approach Abe has adopted in recent years. It boils down to the notion that Japan’s partners should stop speculating on historical topics and instead focus on the current political and economic problems. To address these problems, his country is ready to engage in a most meaningful (“proactive”) way.
It seems that this approach has been adopted by a team of the Committee’s experts as the initial position. It has been incorporated in their final report and boomeranged back to Abe as the main component of the recommendations on the content of his anniversary speech.
Two important points should be noted, however. Firstly, even at the time of the formation of the Committee it was stated that its recommendations would not be binding, and that it would be up to the Prime Minister to accept them or not. Secondly, in evaluating the recent past, the current leadership of Japan found itself in a tricky situation.
Considerations of political and economic “expediency” prompted Japanese government to take the position of Pushkin’s hero evaluating the cost of “kissing the hand” of you-know-who. With regard to the topic under discussion, such an approach should lead to Japan’s public admission of its responsibility for all the “side effects” of the bloodiest massacre in human history.
However, the country with well-grounded ambitions for the recovery of its status of one of the leading world powers cannot be guided only by the master’s slave “logic.” Moreover, the public opinion polls conducted on August 8-9 by the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun showed that 44% of Japanese believe that their previous apologies should be satisfactory and plentiful for their neighbors, while 13% believe that Japan has nothing to apologize for to begin with.
Apparently, the Cabinet of Japan continued debates on the content of the anniversary speech of the Prime Minister until the last moment, and the opinion that the above-mentioned “expediency” should be accounted for had prevailed.
In his speech, Abe stated unequivocally that “Japan had repeatedly expressed its deep regret and sincere remorse for its actions during the war… This position of the previous Cabinets will remain steadfast in the future.” Such statements are worth their weight in gold, especially given the abovementioned current sentiment in the Japanese society.
At the same time, however, Abe’s speech contains prominent elements of the “Historical Revisionism.” They can be discerned in the observation that those were the leading Western countries, which had initially promoted the policy of colonialism and also in the refusal to fully assume the responsibility for the outbreak of the Pacific War, in which, as some female victims of the wars of the 20th century put it “the dignity and honor suffered severely…”
The last passage could hardly be perceived as satisfactory to South Korea, to which the theme of the war “comfort women” relates directly.
The first reaction of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and South Korea to Abe’s speech is that the position of Prime Minister of Japan on the important for the Chinese and Koreans issue has improved. Although they add that the position requires further thorough study and that “words should be demonstrated through deeds“.
It would be pertinent to draw attention to another important point. A week before the speech, the press received information from the government sources that the PM is not planning on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15. That means that Abe fulfilled one of the three pre-requisites required for him to be invited to the celebrations of the End of the Pacific War, scheduled to be held in China.
It can be argued with confidence that it was not easy for the Japanese PM to make this move. Even though the ritual of commemoration of the souls of Japanese soldiers who died in the wars in the past 100-150 years (Yasukuni Shrine was specially built for this purpose) has been established relatively recently, it has already become a national tradition.
Abe’s refusal to perform the ritual (and especially on the 70-year anniversary of the most disastrous war in Japanese history) in order to preserve the fragile political relations with China seems to be worthy of Beijing’s appreciation.
On the whole, (though with some caution) it can be stated that Abe has succeeded in addressing some key practical problems and has passed another “check gates” skillfully evading a multitude of political traps.
His task was to “do no harm” (or at least not much harm) to the delicate Sino-Japanese relations. However, according to the recent statements made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China there is no definite position in China on the fact that Shinzo Abe may be visiting the celebration in Beijing, which is generally some bad news for the bilateral relations.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.