Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is no stranger to historical controversy. Back in 2001 he pressured national broadcaster NHK to revise a documentary about the judgment of an international people’s tribunal regarding the war responsibility of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa). And in 2007 he riled Koreans with his remarks quibbling over the level of coercion used in recruiting so-called wartime comfort women on the day that Koreans commemorate the 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule.
As a member of the Association to Consider the Future Path for Japan and History Education founded in 1997, Abe wants to promote an exonerating narrative of Japan’s wartime past. But Abe II and his deft handlers understand just how risky it is to unilaterally revise history, and he is now relying on Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to do the heavy lifting on airbrushing the past.
There is widespread expectation that if the Liberal Democratic Party which Abe heads wins the Upper House elections in July, thus gaining control of both houses, he will work to remove constitutional constraints on the military.
His Cabinet also seems to be reconsidering Japan’s previous acknowledgements of war responsibility, specifically the 1993 Kono Statement and the 1995 Murayama Statement. Then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged that comfort stations were operated in a coercive manner at the behest of the Japanese military and that women were recruited against their will and by duplicitous means. Kono accepted that it was the responsibility of the Japanese government to apologize for the suffering inflicted on the comfort women and necessary to study and teach about this dark chapter. As a result, the government helped establish and fund the Asia Women’s Fund (1995-2007) to provide solatium to former comfort women — Japan’s first but ill-fated attempt to compensate victims of its 1931-45 Asian rampage.
The 1995 Murayama Statement issued with full Cabinet approval by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama has become a useful mantra frequently echoed by every Japanese premier since then. This includes Junichiro Koizumi, known for his frequent visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the talismanic ground zero for an unrepentant view on Japan’s wartime past. But the Murayama Statement is critical and repentant, saying, “Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries.”
With its references to a “mistaken national policy” and “colonial rule,” and its characterization of the Asia-Pacific War as a “war of aggression,” the Murayama Statement broke new ground.
Despite this, some observers have emphasized that it is vaguely worded and fails to adequately address the question of “war responsibility,” and that a more forthright and concrete statement of apology is needed. These critics also argue that a downgrading of the Murayama Statement would damage Japan’s international reputation and sour regional relations.
Abe, however, wants to move beyond such masochistic history and thus we hear about plans in 2015 to issue new “forward looking” statements about the past. One suspects that “forward looking” may mean blurring war responsibility and rewriting the past in ways that trample on the dignity and sensitivities of neighboring countries, but Okinawans remind us that turning the page was never going to be easy.
In 2007, during Abe’s first premiership, his education ministry demanded that high school textbook publishers omit reference to the role of the Imperial Armed Forces in instigating collective suicides by Okinawans. The result was outrage and some of the largest demonstrations ever in Okinawa. All 42 assemblies in Okinawa passed resolutions demanding that the ministry rescind its order, though the chances of it backing down were negligible because it would mean acknowledging a mistake.
But by the end of 2007, after Abe was ousted from office, the ministry accepted the “publishers’ request” to reinstate much of the original contents. However, the texts in question no longer directly implicate the military, but rather teach that the tragedy occurred in the presence of the Japanese army and that there is no reliable evidence of a direct order by these troops commanding Okinawans to commit mass suicide.
Okinawans disagree, citing eyewitness accounts that attest to the role of Japanese troops in distributing grenades and instigating group suicide. So the ministry’s backpedaling is insufficient in the view of Okinawans because it has forced revisions that obscure their victimization and shade Japanese responsibility.
When the Abe Cabinet announced that it plans a ceremony on April 28 to commemorate the restitution of Japan’s sovereignty in 1952 under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Okinawans’ indignation was aroused yet again. Okinawa waited a further 20 years, until 1972, for the end of the U.S. Occupation, and thus April 28 is considered a “day of insult” — one that symbolizes their abandonment.
Okinawans remain frustrated by the lack of Japanese recognition of their wartime sacrifices. In the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, Okinawans were sacrificed by Tokyo to buy time for strengthening the defenses of the main islands. As much as one-third of the population, by some estimates 148,136 Okinawans, died in the 82 days of indiscriminate combat, searing deep scars on the collective memory.
Despite the U.S. reversion of sovereignty to Japan in 1972, Okinawa remains host to 70 percent of U.S. bases that extend over some 20 percent of the prefecture’s territory. The accumulation of crimes and accidents over the years has politicized the U.S. presence and generated a popular groundswell against it. The contemporary battles over Futenma, Henoko and the Osprey deployment are animated by what activists call a “history of humiliation,” and this has become a major headache for alliance managers in Washington and Tokyo. The 2006 Roadmap for reducing the U.S. military footprint by building a new base in Henoko confronts a roadblock of popular resistance that Abe is determined to overcome.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has taken a somewhat more conciliatory stance for the April 28 festivities, calling it a day to remember overcoming hardships. But he also pointedly stated that it marks the beginning of Okinawa being forced to assume the burden of hosting bases and the loss of land and human rights this has entailed. More strident voices call Tokyo’s plans an affront to their dignity since Okinawa was given over to the United States in exchange for Japan’s independence.
Abe now wants to promote greater public awareness that Japan regained its independence after a seven-year occupation and thus mobilize support for revising Japan’s U.S.-drafted Constitution. This is another page he wants to turn, the unfinished business of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a Class A war crimes suspect who became premier in 1957 until hounded out of office by popular demonstrations in 1960.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.