German Chancellor Angela Merkel, referring to Germany’s own experience, reminded Japan on Monday of the need to squarely confront its wartime past but also signaled that neighboring countries must do their part to achieve reconciliation.
The polite reminder comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing to issue a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, the legacy of which still plagues Tokyo’s ties with China and South Korea.
The statement will be closely watched by Beijing and Seoul, which suffered under Japanese militarism, as well as Tokyo’s closest ally, Washington.
Abe has said he intends to express remorse over the war and that his Cabinet upholds past apologies, including the landmark 1995 statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. But it is unclear whether Abe will repeat the “heartfelt apology” or the reference to “colonial rule and aggression” in that statement.
In a speech at the start of her first visit to Japan since 2008, Merkel referred to a 1985 speech by the late German President Richard von Weizsaecker in which he called the end of World War II in Europe a “day of liberation” and said those who closed their eyes to the past were “blind to the present”.
Asked how Germany was able to reconcile with its one-time enemies after the war, Merkel said: “Without big gestures by our neighbors that would not have been possible. . . . But there was the acceptance in Germany to call things by their name.”
Feuds over wartime history as well as territorial rows over disputed islands and geopolitical rivalry have frayed Tokyo’s ties with Seoul and Beijing in recent years. Sino-Japanese relations have thawed a little since Abe met Chinese leader Xi Jinping last November, but ties with Seoul remain frosty.
Some scholars say that while Japan bears part of the blame for East Asia’s inability to lay the ghosts of the war to rest because its conservative politicians often cast doubt on the sincerity of past apologies, China and South Korea also keep tensions alive because history can be a useful political and diplomatic card.
The public lecture came on the first day of a two-day trip by Merkel to Tokyo.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday that Abe would be welcome at Beijing’s commemorations for the end of World War II if he is “sincere” about history.
Beijing has not given a specific date for the parade.
“It’s difficult for me as the German chancellor to give you advice on how to deal with part of your neighborhood,” Merkel said in response to questions.
“But I think history and experience tells us also that peaceful means of reconciliation have to be found,” she said.
Merkel later met with Abe after visiting the Imperial Palace to meet Emperor Akihito.
The two leaders agreed to cooperate further for the peace and stability in the international community.
“As responsible global partners, the two countries have very important roles in addressing various issues the international society face,” Abe said at a joint news conference after the summit.
Abe said the two countries will promote cooperation on such issues as the Ukrainian crisis and reforming the U.N. Security Council.