TOKYO – After weeks of muddled statements, verbal gaffes and bungled photo ops, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made one thing unintentionally clear: He thinks Japan did little wrong in its years of war and colonial expansion, and he sees no reason to apologize now.
The controversy, perfectly avoidable, has alienated both friends and foes and renewed fears of rising nationalism in Japan. It may be too much to expect Abe and other conservatives to abandon comforting historical narratives. But if Abe cannot manage to at least reign in the rhetoric, it could worsen an already dangerous security environment, and wreck Japan’s best shot in decades at reviving its slumbering economy.
“I believe that Shinzo Abe honestly thinks that the Second World War and the aggression and events leading up to it were relative – that Japan basically was forced into fighting because of Western colonial policies,” says Robert Campbell, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Tokyo and a long-time social commentator for Japanese television and radio. “It’s very difficult to move on and to gain the political capital necessary to solve difficult economic and political problems when you are constantly carrying this enormous bagful of historical rocks.”
The latest drama began last month, during a question-and-answer session in the Diet. Abe, who had focused largely and so far successfully on boosting the economy, repeated a standard line recognizing that Japan had caused great suffering and damage during World War II. But he added that he did not fully agree with a landmark apology issued by Japan’s prime minister in 1995, and he questioned, in lawyer-like fashion, whether Japan had actually committed “aggression” against anyone during the war.
“The definition of aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community,” Abe said. The policy chief for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party later said that Abe also disagreed with the allied tribunal that found 14 wartime leaders guilty of war crimes.
Predictably, there were howls of protest from China, where an estimated 20 million Chinese died fighting the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s, and in Korea, which Japan ruled as a colony from 1910 to 1945. South Korea quickly cancelled a visit by its foreign minister to Tokyo and withheld an invitation to Japan to attend a diplomatic conference with China and the United States; in a clear snub, President Park Geun Hye scheduled her first visit to an Asian country with China, rather than with Japan.
More ominously, articles appeared in China’s government-controlled press hinting that Japan’s entire southwest island chain, not just the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, might actually belong to China.
It didn’t help that nearly 170 LDP members visited the Yasukuni Shrine during its annual spring festival. Some 2.3 million Japanese soldiers who died on behalf of the country are memorialized at Yasukuni. But the ones who really matter – at least to Japan’s neighbors and former victims — are the 14 wartime leaders who were tried, convicted and hanged for war crimes by allied authorities.
Nor did it help that Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, a rising conservative star, claimed that the “comfort women” system — which is believed to have forced some 200,000 Asian women into sexual servitude — had been “necessary” to maintain good order and discipline in the Japanese military. He later clarified that he did not approve of the system, and blamed translators and foreign media for implying otherwise.
The extent of Abe’s tone-deafness, however, was demonstrated during a goodwill visit to the tsunami-ravaged region of Japan last week. With the controversy still swirling, Abe posed for a photo in the cockpit of a military training jet emblazoned with the number “731” – that’s the unit number of an infamous Imperial Army group that conducted lethal chemical and biological warfare experiments on Chinese citizens.
Entire chapters are devoted to Unit 731 in the harshly anti-Japanese educational systems in China and South Korea. That neither Abe nor his handlers grasped the significance of the photo – or didn’t care – demonstrates the distance between Japan and its neighbors when it comes to wartime issues.
It wasn’t until the U.S. Congressional Research Service issued a report in early May branding Abe a “nationalist” and warning that the controversy over historical issues could damage U.S. interests that Abe and the LDP went into serious damage control. Abe now says he fully accepts the apologies issued by previous administrations.
In some respects, none of this should be surprising. Abe has long exhibited strongly conservative, if not nationalist, tendencies. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a wartime industry minister who was arrested on suspicion of war crimes; Kishi was never charged and later became prime minister. At a recent ceremony marking the anniversary of the return of Japanese sovereignty after the war, Abe was among the first to raise his arms in an unscripted – and somewhat startling — “Banzai” salute to the Emperor and Empress.
Although the war crimes tribunal adjudicated thousands of individual cases, there has never been a public examination of Japan’s wartime conduct and the issue has remain largely unresolved.
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 issued an official apology for Japan’s “mistaken national policy” and “colonial rule and aggression.” Two years earlier, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued an apology for the “comfort women” system.
Abe has tried to re-focus attention on his economic policies, which have boosted consumer spending, pushed down the value of the Yen and boosted the stock market by 55 percent. Although public approval ratings for Abe and his Cabinet have slipped in recent weeks, it remains at 70.9 percent, astonishingly high by the standards of recent prime ministers.
Still, don’t expect the issue to go away, or to hear any apologies from Abe or other conservative leaders.
“They’ll say things like, ‘I really regret for all of the things that happened.’ Or ‘I regret the suffering that took place.’ Or they’ll leave out the subject, so it sounds like ‘things just sort of happened,” says Campbell. “But they won’t say, ‘The Imperial Japanese Army committed atrocities, and as a representative of the Japanese people, I deeply apologize.’ They’ll never come out and say that.”