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The politics and pitfalls of war memory and apology

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Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of history issues during this 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat came under critical scrutiny at the recent Japanese Studies Association of Australia conference hosted by La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Arthur Stockwin, the University of Oxford’s eminent political scientist on Japanese politics, assessed the arc of apology from 1995 to 2015, highlighting the counterproductive backsliding that has occurred during Abe’s tenure.

Although there has been no shortage of Japanese apologies for wartime misdeeds, an unwarranted apology fatigue has taken hold. Unwarranted because, as Stockwin argues, every official apology has been undermined by countervailing comments aimed at repudiating or dismissing the contrition expressed. This undermines any potential goodwill because Japan looks like it is wriggling out of its war responsibility and downplaying the horrors that it inflicted on Asia.

Stockwin also believes that Abe has been duplicitous in his “handling of war apology issues that combines apparent agreement with official apologies made in the past, while at the same time by various means throwing doubt on their veracity.”

Abe’s misgivings about the Murayama statement are well-known so when he says that he accepts it in general he underscores that in certain specifics he doesn’t. Stockwin related that in February 2009 Abe gave an interview in the journal Will, saying, “It is a big mistake to teach the Murayama statement as historical understanding.”

That same month, in the right-wing journal Seiron, Abe commented: “Japan is not bound forever by the personal historical understanding of Mr. Murayama. The Murayama statement was too one-sided, and I should like to come up with something more balanced.”

In April, Abe said there was no point in repeating the Murayama and Koizumi war apologies, saying he inherited them and wants to leave it at that. Shinichi Kitaoka, a well-known academic who is one of Abe’s foremost advisers and apologists, maintains that Abe can inherit past statements without repeating them.

“It is natural that what is said 50 years after the war and what is said 70 years after the war should differ to some extent,” Kitaoka says. Stockwin’s rejoinder is withering: “Kitaoka’s analysis sounds confused, and appears to imply that it is acceptable to repeat earlier war apologies so long as their content is removed. It is surprisingly difficult to see that this could carry serious intellectual conviction.”

Stockwin senses a strategy, saying that Abe pays lip service to war apologies that have stood the test of time and served Japan well while at the same time slagging them. Instead of outright repudiation of the 1993 Kono statement on “comfort women,” Abe has gutted it, something Stockwin refers to as honenuki ni suru (taking the bones out, while leaving the outward shape).

In Stockwin’s view, Abe’s maneuvering on war apology has been counterproductive and worsened relations with China and South Korea, thereby irking the United States.

Akiko Hashimoto, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, recently published an excellent book titled, “The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan,” which explores the contentious politics of divisive war memories. She draws our gaze to intertwined narratives of nationalism, pacifism and reconciliation, and the long shadow of defeat that animates the politics of national identity. She calls on Japan to relinquish the “comfort zone of ambiguity in the amorphous middle ground between guilt and innocence in WWII” and to embrace “imaginative concessions and innovative compromise to break the logjam of historical grievances.” Forgetting, denying or downplaying, she says, is no longer an option in a “globalizing culture of memory.”

“Japan’s moral recovery cannot be complete without constructing a new collective self, and a political identity that extends beyond the alliance with the U.S.,” she argues.

Hashimoto points out that apology is “an ennobling act” and Abe can do much to enhance Japan’s dignity and moral stature if he takes the measure of Japan’s wartime history. A forthright apology is a “pathway to transcend stigma,” but Japanese revisionists lack the courage to admit wartime “evildoing” and therefore close off possibilities of rapprochement and achieving a shared sense of justice with its victims. Nationalism in East Asia has turned “war memory into a contest of national interests and identity, and a stew of national resentments” that fuel mistrust and suspicion. It is up to Japan to show the way forward, but Abe’s vision is focused on the past in ways that jeopardize the future.

Hashimoto notes that Abe is unlikely to repeat Murayama’s condemnation of Japanese colonial and wartime aggression as a “mistaken national policy” because it would mean condemning the wartime record of his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi and, thereby, dishonoring his family. Kishi was indicted as a Class-A war criminal by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East due to his role in mobilizing labor in Manchuria and as wartime munitions minister for Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Hashimoto also believes Abe’s efforts to expand Japan’s security role are misguided and ignore public sentiments that draw on grass-roots wartime memories. Expecting that the forthcoming Abe statement will shirk the burdens of history, Hashimoto wants to remind Japan’s victims, and the world, that most Japanese don’t support his exonerating and valorizing narrative of Japan’s wartime record.

Akiko Takenaka, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky, shares her astute insights on historical controversies in her new book, “Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar.” She focuses on Yasukuni Shrine’s role in terms of national identity and war memory and the dilemma of how to remember those who died in Japan’s attempt to subjugate Asia.

“(Abe’s) record on historical issues in 2015 has been dismal,” Takenaka says. “I believe he’s managed to reach a new low as far as Japanese prime ministers’ records on the issues.”

In his much-anticipated statement on Aug. 15, she says Abe “should most certainly declare support of the Kono statement, apologize for the violence inflicted on others, and also acknowledge the wrongs of the past.”

She adds that acknowledging past wrongdoings is just the first step in reconciliation.

“But mere acknowledgment won’t change the past. Nor will it speak to the growing number of Japanese who embrace the revisionist myths,” she says.

To address this trend, Takenaka calls for the inclusion of peace education in the school curriculum, but Team Abe is busy white-washing textbooks and promoting patriotic education.

As perpetrator’s fatigue gains momentum among Japanese amid a heightened sense of victimization, she wonders, “Who is going to take action to improve Japan’s strained relations with China and South Korea, which are deeply rooted in the wartime past?”

None of these experts thinks Abe is the man for the job.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.