Next month Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attend the 60th commemoration of the 1955 Bandung Conference of Asian and African leaders in Jakarta.
His main reason for doing so is to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and hopefully snag a better photo opportunity than he did on sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing last November, where Xi made a sour expression as he shook Abe’s hand.
The situation bears a striking resemblance to that faced by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he attended the same event 10 years ago. Koizumi, who led the country from 2001-06, derailed bilateral relations with his annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine.
In Beijing these pilgrimages were interpreted as demonstrating a lack of contrition for Japan’s 20th-century imperial aggression, because the shrine venerates not only those who died in battle but also the Japanese leaders held responsible for orchestrating the rampage — the so-called Class-A war criminals. To mend fences, Koizumi’s aides lobbied for a meeting with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao, while Beijing made it clear that the price for some face time was an unequivocal apology.
As it happens, the Yasukuni Shrine spring festival coincided with the Bandung commemoration and on April 22, 2005, 168 lawmakers and political aides — but no Cabinet ministers — visited the controversial war shrine. The timing was awkward for Koizumi, but he rose to the occasion by delivering an unexpectedly contrite and apologetic speech, repeating many of the key phrases from the 1995 Murayama statement.
“In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations,” Koizumi said. “Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility. And with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, never turning into a military power but an economic power, its principle of resolving all matters by peaceful means, without recourse to use of force.”
Koizumi’s pragmatism over history served the national interest, not only because he met with Hu, but also because he seized the opportunity when the world was watching to reaffirm Japan’s official wartime mea culpa. He understood there is no dignity in denial or shirking the burdens of history. It was a dry run for a statement he issued in August of that year commemorating the 60th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. On that occasion, as a sop to revisionists, Koizumi didn’t repeat Murayama’s comment, “Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war,” but he did confirm Japan’s pacifist intentions in three separate phrases.
Abe is eager to hit the reset button on bilateral relations. Before meeting with Xi in Jakarta, he should follow Koizumi’s shining example. The prime minister is torn between his revisionist convictions and the demands of statesmanship, but his core constituencies will forgive him for invoking the Murayama mantra. Not doing so will sully the nation’s image, incite the neighbors and make relations awkward for Japan’s friends. It’s essentially a no-brainer.
In 1955, there were hopes of forging solidarity among participants to exert greater influence in the U.N. that drew on the shared indignities of colonial subjugation. It was an anti-imperialist gathering that highlighted the persistence of inequalities and racism in the world system and was the forerunner of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding father and president, opened the proceedings with a rousing speech citing the dangers of nuclear weapons, the Cold War and neo-imperialism.
“Colonialism has also its modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control … (and) must be eradicated from the Earth,” he stated. “We, the peoples of Asia and Africa, 1.4 billion strong, far more than half the human population of the world, we can mobilize what I have called the Moral Violence of Nations in favor of peace.”
Bandung was Japan’s diplomatic coming-out party following the formal end of the U.S. Occupation in 1952; it did not join the U.N. until 1956. Ironically, Japan was the only invitee that had been a colonial power while the governments of its former colonies in Taiwan and Korea were not invited. This first Asian-African conference took place while decolonization was gaining momentum and the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up.
China chartered the Kashmir Princess from Air India to fly its delegation to Indonesia, but it crashed en route following a midair explosion attributed to Taiwanese saboteurs. Then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who dominated at Bandung, was the assassination target. An alleged emergency appendectomy saved him from boarding the plane, but several journalists were not so lucky. It is now believed that Beijing had foreknowledge of the plot but was eager to score propaganda points from the incident as Washington was implicated in the plot.
Conservatives from wartime Japanese government and business circles dominated the Japanese delegation in 1955. As prominent actors in the empire, they held positive views of Japan’s wartime history and, at the time of Bandung, also favored close security ties with the United States — positions that were totally out of sync with the conference’s anti-imperialist, nonaligned agenda.
In his speech, Tatsunosuke Takasaki, head of the delegation, referred only vaguely to Japan’s wartime misdeeds, while invoking the tragedy of the atomic bombings. He did so in Indonesia where it is believed that as many as 4 million forced laborers died on Japanese projects, an inflated figure that does not lessen the horrors inflicted or endured.
Aiichiro Fujiyama, another delegate, was the son of a sugar baron in colonial Taiwan and had taken over the family business. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, expressed gratitude toward Fujiyama for giving him a job after he was released from Sugamo Prison, where he had been held as a Class-A war crimes suspect for his role in mobilizing forced labor and later serving as the wartime minister of munitions. Fujiyama had been purged during the Occupation, but this was overturned after the Americans left, and he subsequently served as Kishi’s foreign minister.
There are other reasons why Abe’s participation in the Bandung ceremonies resonates with irony. The 10-point declaration issued in 1955 that was agreed to by the 29 Asian and African leaders that attended, including Japan, specifically calls for “abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defence to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers.” The new Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation commit Japan to just such arrangements and in conjunction with Abe’s pending legislation on collective self-defense, contravene the Bandung spirit.
But this discordant footnote will be overshadowed by his Jakarta speech, because it will be a preview of the Abe statement expected in August. In considering his limited options, Abe should bear in mind that nothing could be more inconvenient for Beijing and Seoul than surprising everyone by making a grand gesture of contrition and reconciliation.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.