Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,
I have to hand it to you. For years we’ve been hearing about how Japan hasn’t apologized sincerely for its imperial past. So what do you do? Threaten to retract those “nonexistent” apologies in the form of the Kono and Murayama statements of 1993 and 1995, thereby drawing such attention towards them that the focus of your statement on the 70-year anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War has turned from whether you are going to apologize to whether you will uphold the apologies that exist. Talk about a triumph of diminished expectations!
It would now seem that your upcoming statement is to focus on the future in preference to what you would dearly like to do: clarify the past. A future-oriented statement is surely a discerning road to take, but I would like to suggest an alternative approach.
The central problem with the issue of apology as it relates to imperial Japan is that much of Japan’s decision-making was judicious in the extreme.
In 1853, Japan was pried open by Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy in a process aptly described by Japan Times columnist Michael Hoffman as “a rape dressed up as seduction.” Japan then acquired the status of “associate colony” through the forced imposition of “unequal treaties” — a staple of the era thus named because they conferred upon one signatory party rights and privileges that the other did not enjoy.
A quick look over the East China Sea was indication enough of what was to follow. China, Asia’s premier military and commercial power, was being forced to cede more and more of its sovereignty with every passing year. Burma and Indochina were falling under full Western imperial control.
Could Japan not have curbed its advance around the turn of the 20th century when sovereignty was largely secure? That argument is felled by Japan’s inability to escape from the last vestiges of the unequal treaties until 1911, the year after it annexed the Korean Empire.
A mid-1920s timeline? A positive response to the 1924 challenge of Chinese patriot Sun Yat-sen that Japan become “the tower of strength of the Orient” in preference to the “hawk of Western civilization”? That postulation would carry more weight if not for the trade and immigration restrictions to which the Japanese were being subjected, not to mention the visceral racism that was ever-increasing in intensity. No, it was prudent in trying to become stronger.
In short, there were only two options for nations within the era that Japan was forced to join — imperial aggressor or imperial possession — of which those former generations of Japanese leaders made by far the wiser choice.
And so, Prime Minister, to the delicate problem at hand: to explain to the world that you’re sorry for the implications of Japan’s warmongering past while actually rather glad Japan avoided the fate of its neighbors by treading the imperial path.
To ask for consideration of the context within which Japanese decision-making was made is to call out the names of other imperial powers, but the moment you do that you get flayed for denial and making excuses. But how about a “call out” that doesn’t name names?
I’m sure you had a chuckle over South Korea’s reaction to the recent comments from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman about how “we don’t have to look far for a cautionary tale” of a nation “trapped” in the past through its near-daily vilification of a former enemy. “Hey, you’re talking about us,” the South Koreans complained — a protest that doubled as confession.
And there, Mr. Abe, lies your model: Offer up an apology on behalf of imperialism itself that all are free to identify with or consider unique to Japan.
“We apologize for the era of imperialism,” your statement could begin, “for the unequal treaties, gunboat diplomacy, forced sale of opium and extraterritoriality. We repudiate the notion of colonialism and the virulent forms of racism on which colonial rule was legitimized and based. We applaud the postwar culture of access to resources, the movement of people and international trade.”
A statement along these lines should be acceptable to all within Japan. Why wouldn’t it? There is precious little evidence of a European-style longing for the days of empire lost. As in the pre-Perry era, the main collective dysfunction of postwar Japan has been an unnatural desire to be left well alone.
China, the Koreas and the West? They’ll have trouble stating objection without drawing unwanted attention to the full history of imperialism on the continent of Asia, which they are extremely loath to do.
The remaining nations of Asia, who fully understand that imperialism no more ended with the defeat of Japan than began with Japan’s arrival? They’ll probably support it in full. They might even have a chuckle as well.
The question you’ll then be asked is the one upon which so much debate seems to focus: Was Japan’s advance into Asia an act of aggression? Declare the question redundant. It was an act of imperialism and imperialism is aggression. There is no benign kind.
PAUL DE VRIES
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IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5