Japan might win more friends if it just shuts up



Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye last week looked a bit like schoolyard rivals called into the principal’s office and forced to smile and say nice things to one another. Barack Obama convened last Tuesday’s trilateral summit, casting himself in the role of headmaster. It was a cagey move by a U.S. president whose promise to turn his administration’s attention to Asia has been more talk than action.

Making sure the Abe-Park meeting is more than a fleeting photo opportunity requires concrete steps, however.

Although there’s plenty of blame to go around for the sorry state of relations between Japan and its neighbors, there’s something Abe could do to ratchet down tensions and build trust with Park: Tell people in his inner circle to clam up.

Abe’s government has enraged South Koreans with efforts to whitewash Japan’s World War II colonization and sexual enslavement of women in conquered nations. The obsession with beautifying Japan’s past and unshackling the military from the constraints of a constitution written by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s team has created an environment that encourages unrepentant nationalists to step out of the shadows and be heard.

Sadly that includes officials in high places. The main reason Park agreed to meet Abe was his government’s decision not to revise Japan’s 1993 apology for using sex slaves.

But the brief summit almost didn’t happen because of comments by Abe aide Koichi Hagiuda, who said that Japan should make new statements if new facts emerge, as if the nation’s wartime atrocities are an issue that’s open to dispute.

There’s a smarter way for Abe and his administration to deal with Japan’s past: Limit comments to events that occurred after, say, 1990. If a journalist asks about the Nanjing massacre, say: “Look our message is Japan is back and we’re looking to the future.” If queried about sex slaves, say: “You should talk to historians; I can only tell you where Japan is headed.”

If Japan wants China and South Korea to get over the past, it should start by not debating history’s facts.

Consider where perceptions about Japan have traveled in recent years. In March 2011, a huge earthquake and tsunami left 20,000 dead or missing and precipitated the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. Japan received an outpouring of support and sympathy in north Asia. Three years and all that good will is gone.

If Abe told his own people to shut up, that would be just a first step. He would have to make sure the same message is delivered to his Liberal Democratic Party, those leading the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and bigwigs at national broadcaster NHK.

Then he needs to fix the economy. Abe sometimes seems to forget that his mandate is increasing economic growth, not opening a Pandora’s Box of side issues that antagonize economic partners. A 20 percent yen devaluation doesn’t work very well if consumers in two of your biggest markets are furious at you.

Revive the economy and much of the global clout that Japan craves will following. But first, Abe needs to ensure that his aides and colleagues stop saying stupid things about the past.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo. Email: wpesek@bloomberg.net.

  • U Nyunt Shwe

    Very well said article and I agree with the author’s opinion – Japan’s leaderships should shut up. World War 2 Japan army’s atrocities could not be water down. They did really bad, unbelievably bad, in all the countries they invaded or occupied.

    Even lightest atrocity compare to other countries, citizens and folks of my motherland, Myanmar, talked about it occasionally. However, Myanmar people as a whole, though we do not forget, forgive them as one of our Karmic consequence.

    Japan, the only country that had suffered Atomic bombs, should lead for the world’s peace. Without harmony with her neighbours, how we can select Japan as our Peace Leader of the world?

    • Daishi88

      “Japan, the only country that had suffered Atomic bombs”

      While your sentiment is correct, this statement is blatantly false – it is a common misconception about Japan and nuclear weapons. In fact, I would suggest that the idea that “Japan is the only country that has suffered atomic bombs” is a statement that plays right into Japan’s war-crime denialist/victimization mentality.

      Off the top of my head, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia were both countries that suffered greatly from atomic bomb testing – I don’t know the full list, but a quick Google search would give you more accurate information.

      But Japan is absolutely NOT the only country to have suffered from atomic bombs. Of all the countries that have had atomic bombs used on them, though, Japan was the ONLY one that was an aggressor in a war. All other countries that have suffered from atomic weaponry were innocent bystanders, colonies of more powerful nations. In the case of Bikini, they had been given to the US for protection and guidance to help them out from the umbrella of Japanese imperialism.

      Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Those were acts of war. Illegal acts, yes. Terrible acts, yes. Wrong. Unimaginable. But acts of war nonetheless. The testing on Bikini? It was a betrayal. Of trust. Of morality. Of humanity.

      And, now, on websites like Japan Times, people quietly dismiss them, forget them. “Japan was the only one.” We absolutely can’t forget the others.

      Because, when you really look at it, the only thing her where Japan is the “only one” – Japan is the only nation that has had atomic bombs used on it, and then deliberately and purposefully rebuilt into a world power. Bikini was abandoned by America, and in fact, America continues to this day to abuse the Marshall Islands. Unlike Japan, which is a world economic power, where the people are not and never have been oppressed by outsiders.

      Bikini has not been so lucky. Yes, Japan was a victim of nuclear weapons, but they are doing just fine now, and do not need our sympathy. There are others who are still feeling the effects of nuclear weapons, and have barely a fraction of Japan’s power and influence. We need to remember them. Japan can take care of itself now.

  • Daishi88

    I have to say that I disagree with the author’s point.

    If a politician is asked about his nation’s past war crimes, he really ought to be able to say something on the matter.

    If I were asked about something like Viet Nam War crimes committed by US soldiers (and I were a politician), I would absolutely address it with some kind of comment like, “I learned that in school. I know what you are talking about, and I try to keep it in mind when dealing with people from that region. But today we are talking about something else.” Finally, it would be good to add an apology like, “I’m sorry we can’t address it today.” before moving on.

    What I mean is, if you are a certain age, you should have a certain level of knowledge. If I’m a national-level politician, I would expect people to hold me accountable for basic facts about my country’s history, including the war crimes. If you can’t demonstrate basic knowledge of history, you aren’t really fit to lead your country.

    The problem with Japanese politicians isn’t that they make stupid comments – it’s the fact that they lack even the most rudimentary knowledge about history, and are unapologetic about that ignorance. They lack tact and manners in addressing it, again, unapologetically ignoring people’s concerns.

    As an American, I would never, ever brush aside someone’s concerns about my country’s war crimes, not even in a private conversation with friends. “I don’t know, ask a historian” is just callous and rude. Acknowledge it. Admit it. Show how it makes you feel. But above all show the person talking to you that you understand and acknowledge their position.

    Abe really does’t need to tell his underlings to “shut up.” He needs to tell them to read a book for once in their lives. He needs to send them to a class on etiquette and good manners.

    • Jamie Bakeridge

      What about the ongoing war crimes being committed in Afghanistan and Pakistan?