Can Japan’s Prime Minister Bury the Past Without Jeopardizing His Future Goals?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II at the Nippon Budokan arena. Tokyo, Japan, August 15, 2015. (Motoo Naka/AFLO/Nippon News/Corbis)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement last week on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II was seen as too qualified an apology to satisfy China, South Korea, and others who suffered under Tokyo’s wartime aggression. His remarks have added to the tense and politically uncooperative climate in the region, but have they jeopardized the prime minister’s plans for Japan to play a more important role in international security?

While Abe’s speech did acknowledge Japan inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” on innocent people, and upheld a pledge for the country “never to wage a war again,” it also sought to protect current and future generations from becoming “predestined to apologize.” It largely attributed blame for Japan’s wartime behavior to the effects of Western colonialism and the Great Depression. As such, it departed heavily from what is seen as the “gold standard” in such matters, the 1995 address by then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama.

The speech, unsurprisingly, met considerable disappointment in both Beijing and Seoul. The immediate effect will be to stymie much-needed communication and mutual understanding between governments in the region. These have already been tested by China’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of territorial and resource claims, leading to alarming military build-ups in the region, including by the Philippines, which is planning to increase military spending by an incredible 25% in the next year.

Tokyo, too, has been steadily increasing its defense budgets and solidifying its alliance with the United States through military exercises, technology exchanges, and intelligence sharing. The prime minister increasingly wants to employ these resources and partnerships through a more active role for Japan’s Self Defense Forces, couched within the language of promoting “proactive pacificism.” He has spoken of Japan returning to being a “normal” country that can take full responsibility for its own security, and help its allies when needed. Attracting support at home and acceptance abroad will be critical to the success of these outcomes.

Abe has already forced a number of related security bills through the lower house of the Diet, which has so far caused considerable anger in China, where state-run media called it a “nightmare scenario.” He has, in the past, also supported a legislative amendment that goes further, seeking to rewrite or remove the pacifist Article 9 of Japan’s constitution. While the prime minister’s actions are failing to gain traction with the wider Japanese public at present, they attracted 56% support only two years ago, and as much as 65% in the past decade, and so shouldn’t be discounted as fringe or politically unworkable.

The US has also shown considerable support for a greater Japanese role in maintaining international security for many years. Most recently, President Obama has sought to engage Tokyo far more in balancing efforts against China, as he attempts to retain US regional interests without pulling too much focus away from domestic outcomes.

Whether an increased international role for Japan would increase or decrease global peace remains a topic of fierce debate. Nonetheless, Abe’s recent speech could be a serious setback for his desired outcome. A more politically astute move could have been to smooth over relations with Japan’s neighbors as best as possible, thereby providing assurances that the normalcy it is now seeking will not be at all conducive to producing the same pre-1945 results.

Offering instruction in this regard is the record of Japan’s early 2000s leader Junichiro Koizumi, who was regarded to have provided a better account of the country’s wartime record and was also successful in putting in place reforms that allowed Japanese troops to provide logistical support to post-September 11 efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to relax restrictions on Japanese companies partnering with their US counterparts on developing missile defense systems. These were key developments in moving the country back to the normalcy Abe seeks.

In the more immediate term, Japan continues to face considerable economic challenges, with the national economy shrinking by an annualized rate of 1.6% in the April-June quarter as the effects of China’s recent slowdown took a significant bite out of export revenue, and the “Abenomics” platform—comprising fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms—continued to fail.

In light of this, the prolonging of historical tensions risks being a distraction at best. At worst it could further hamper future recovery efforts—Chinese consumers have a history of punishing Japanese exporters for the country’s political missteps, which they can ill-afford in an existing climate of falling demand.

Abe is joined by many other Japanese conservatives in his disdain for what he sees as a culture of having to constantly apologize for past actions. This, however, neglects the fact that previous accounts of the country’s wartime record, such as Murayama’s, that were accepted as factual and sufficiently remorseful by China, South Korea, and others, have typically been compromised by subsequent revisionism. Actions that could in fact spare future generations from the dreaded historical burden are inevitably short-lived in the face of the introduction of inaccurate chapters to school textbooks, or politicians making trips to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

It should be noted that Abe and the Japanese people could also feel aggrieved by the failure of other countries to make full accounts of the events of 1945. The anniversary of the formal end of the war was of course preceded by the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose devastation and relative merits were covered at length in Japan, but received little attention in the US, which sanctioned them. If Abe could commit to one true version of Japan’s history, he would likely have greater legitimacy in seeking a broader audience for discussing this legacy, as part of the greater role he seeks to play on the global stage.

James Bowen is Assistant Editor of the Global Observatory.