Former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said senior Chinese officials reassured him on a recent visit to Beijing that China, too, desires a “peaceful resolution” to the territorial dispute in the East China Sea and that China is “not seeking hegemony.”
His impression from the trip in late January was that the Chinese think highly of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, given his fence-mending efforts during his first stint in office from 2006 to 2007, but remain concerned about his intention to rethink the 1995 Murayama statement, in which the then-prime minister apologized unequivocally for Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia.
Murayama said he told Abe this upon returning from the trip.
“When I headed to China, I was worried about the tensions between Japan and China,” Murayama said in a recent interview. “But in talks with Mr. Tang Jiaxuan, which lasted for about 1½ hours, he said, ‘One way or another, let us resolve (the territorial issue) through dialogue.’ Hearing that, I felt somewhat relieved.”
Tang, a former state councilor, is head of the China-Japan Friendship Association. He was China’s foreign minister from 1998 to 2003 and is a specialist on Japanese affairs.
Murayama, a socialist who was prime minister from 1994 to 1996 and now serves as an honorary adviser to the Japan-China Friendship Association, said the two then agreed to make sure their respective organizations work together to create an “atmosphere” that will allow the two governments to engage in talks.
Murayama also quoted then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as saying in a separate meeting that a clash would be “foolish, given the damage it would do to both sides, considering our economic relations,” and that Yang desired a “peaceful resolution.”
“He also said ‘China is not seeking hegemony,’ ” said Murayama, who retired from politics in 2000 but remains an influential figure.
The former leader of then Social Democratic Party of Japan became one of Japan’s rare non-LDP prime ministers when his party formed a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake between 1994 and 1996.
Ties between Japan and China have deteriorated sharply to their lowest in years amid the rekindled dispute over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China and Taiwan also claim and call Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively.
The latest episode broke out after Japan “nationalized” the chain last year by purchasing three of the islets from their private owner, a measure that was meant to counter a bid by then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara for the metropolitan government to buy them.
Asked how he would have handled the matter had he been prime minister, Murayama said: “First, I would have repeatedly tried to convince the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to back off. That is because this is a matter for the national level.
“Also, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s decision to nationalize (the islets) is not something to be conveyed to (then-Chinese President) Mr. Hu Jintao during a chat on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference,” he added.
Criticizing the Japanese government as being too optimistic in its judgment, including its analysis of China’s response, Murayama said, “Japan should have discussed and consulted on this matter with China courteously, taking into account the historical circumstances in which the Senkaku issue has been shelved.”
When asked how he himself currently thinks of the 1995 Murayama statement, which was issued on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the former prime minister said, “I think there is no need to change anything.
“All Cabinets after mine have expressed their intention to follow the statement, which has taken root in all Asian nations, not to mention in China and South Korea,” Murayama added.
He recalled telling Abe, “I have conveyed to the Chinese side that it would not be a bad idea (for the Japanese government) to release a new statement based on international affairs of the present day, provided that it succeeds my statement.”
In an interview with a South Korean magazine in mid-March, Abe was quoted as saying he aims to issue in 2015 a new statement on Japan’s understanding of the war. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has also made a similar suggestion, saying it is the Abe administration’s basic policy to issue a “future-oriented statement” for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
Meanwhile, on the issue of wartime sex slavery and the so-called Kono statement, Murayama said he has asked people in the Liberal Democratic Party to tell Abe to watch what he says.
Abe has long called for a reassessment of the 1993 government statement issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the “comfort women” issue, which acknowledged the Japanese military’s responsibility over the forced recruitment of women and girls into sexual servitude and apologized to the victims.
Any revision to the statement, however, would undoubtedly stir up tensions, especially with China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japanese atrocities have not been forgotten.
“The military needed comfort women for the conduct of the war. Even if there is no document saying the military directly brought in the comfort women by force, it was the military that called on business operators to set up brothels, which were furthermore under the jurisdiction of the military,” Murayama said. “The (Kono) statement was issued based on all this.”
As for the Asian Women’s Fund, set up by the private sector in 1995 when Murayama was in office to pay atonement money to surviving comfort women, he acknowledged that the way Japan initially explained the fund’s nature led to misunderstandings and is partly to blame for its rejection by many of the women who continue to demand official compensation from Japan.
“We must, with all eagerness, continue to explain Japan’s efforts to date,” he said.
On North Korea, Murayama praised former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s success during a landmark visit to the country in 2002 in getting Pyongyang to admit its agents abducted Japanese nationals, describing it as a “significant accomplishment.”
The abductions in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a dispute over the fate of those who are still missing, remain a major obstacle to normalizing ties and remain an emotional issue in Japan.
“We should first think of ways to get (North Korea) to the negotiation table for discussions based on the Pyongyang Declaration and also listen to what they have to say,” Murayama said, while adding that the North’s recent “reckless” nuclear test made it hard for Japan to mend ties.