Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s election victory means he will helm Japan into the 70th anniversary of its World War II defeat in 2015, a watershed year that will set the tone for Tokyo’s fraught ties with Beijing and Seoul.
Deft handling of next year’s anniversary could assuage regional anger over Japan’s attitude to past aggression, while any missteps could worsen the situation, with Abe now poised to remain prime minister at least until the 2016 Upper House election.
“Like him or not, China has to deal with him for another term,” said Lian Degui, deputy director of the Japanese Studies Center at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
“If Abe takes the opportunity to admit Japan’s wrongdoing during World War II, then the relationship between the countries can be fundamentally improved,” he said. Aggressive actions will mean “it can only get worse.”
Abe inherited sour relations with both countries when he took the reins in December 2012 amid territorial disputes and continuing recriminations over Japan’s past aggression. His administration’s wavering over Japan’s war apologies and his December 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many in China and South Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism, have hampered reconciliation.
The anniversary is crucial because of Japan’s tradition of marking each decade with a statement on its wartime role. Abe plans his own pronouncement next year, following apologies on the 50th and 60th anniversaries of Japan’s Aug. 15 surrender. If he is seen as backsliding on past apologies, it could reignite Chinese anger that spilled over into anti-Japanese demonstrations after the central government bought three of the disputed Senkaku Islands from a private owner in September 2012.
Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared to strike a warning note at a Dec. 13 commemoration of the 1937 Nanking Massacre, over which China and Japan disagree about the number and nature of casualties inflicted by Japanese troops. “Forgetting history means betrayal and denying the crime means committing it once again,” he said.
In recent months there have been signs of a thaw. Xi agreed to Abe’s request for a bilateral meeting in Beijing last month after he repeatedly said his administration would uphold past statements of remorse. The two did meet, though an unsmiling Xi looked uncomfortable as he shook Abe’s hand before the encounter.
China remains Japan’s biggest trade partner, the number of incursions by Chinese ships into Japanese-controlled waters around the Senkaku Islands has fallen and Chinese tourists continue to flock to Japan in growing numbers.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said last month she is hoping for a three-way summit with Japan and China, though so far she has refused Abe’s entreaties for a bilateral meeting.
There will be ample opportunities to draw attention to Japan’s violent past across Asia in 2015, as South Korea celebrates the anniversary of its liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule and a newly confident China touts its role in the victory over Japan.
Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will co-host commemorations of the “world anti-Fascist war and China’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression” next year. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel was invited to World War II commemorations in Europe in June, there are no reports of similar invitations for Abe.
Ties with South Korea will be delicate, after a year in which Japan appeared to question its own apology to women trafficked to Japanese military brothels across Asia before and during the war. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it was inappropriate to refer to these “comfort women,” many of whom were Korean, as “sex slaves,” and the Asahi Shimbun withdrew a series of stories about their forcible recruitment.
With Abe’s election victory Dec. 14, Park will feel pressure to try to ratchet down tensions, said Yang Kee-ho, a professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.
“There’s a bigger incentive for Park to try to do something,” said Yang. “But the issue is the dispute over comfort women. Unless Abe makes a proposal that South Korea can accept over the issue, it’s ultimately impossible to expect relations to get better.”
Japan is reportedly planning to strike a deal with South Korea and the U.S. to allow the sharing of military secrets.
In a 1995 statement, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a socialist, said Japan “through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries.” He also referred to “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology.” Ten years later, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used the same language of remorse in his own statement but still failed to prevent the issue resurfacing.
The stakes are high for Abe as his political pedigree, his appeal to Japanese nationalists and his efforts to boost Japan’s defense forces have fueled mistrust in South Korea and China. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a member of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s wartime government and arrested as a war criminal, though never indicted. He later served as prime minister.
“Only Abe can put an end to this perpetual cycle of disagreements over history,” said Yuki Tatsumi, a senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington.
The government will put together a panel of experts to consider the content of Abe’s new statement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said last March.
“I want to include our reflections on the past war, the path we took afterward and what contributions Japan will make to the region and the world in future,” Abe said in a televised debate on Dec. 1.
Assuaging anger in Asia and bringing his right-wing supporters in line would help enable Abe to play the broader security role he has been seeking in Asia, without accusations of a return to militarism, Tatsumi said.
From China’s point of view, the relative stability of Abe’s administration makes little difference, given that Xi has a guaranteed 10-year term, said Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing,
“It’s psychological warfare, and the one on a long-term and stable power base is in an advantageous position,” Liu said. “In that sense, it’s more that Japan should consider how to deal with Xi’s China than the other way around.”