In recent years, the number of tourists visiting Japan has been increasing rapidly, reaching a record 13.4 million last year, a 29 percent increase from 2013. Japan seems to be making great strides toward its goal of recapturing the position as an Asian cultural center that it held a century ago, when the Indian Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore lived in Tokyo. Chinese revolutionary leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, along with many other prominent Asians, moved there as well.
Anyone visiting Japan today would do well to learn two key words: domo, meaning “hello,” “thanks” or “well,” and sumimasen, which can carry any of the meanings of domo, as well as “sorry” or “excuse me.” Ordinary Japanese say sumimasen countless times each day, to apologize to friends or strangers for even the most trivial accident or mistake. But, as Japan’s leaders have experienced firsthand since World War II, expressing regret to other countries is not so simple.
Yet that is precisely what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must do in his upcoming statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. The statement will be based on consultations with many of Japan’s, and the world’s, leading WWII historians, as well as — and more important — with himself, his conscience, and his heart, because he understands the significance of his words on this highly fraught topic.
Of course, Abe is far from the first Japanese leader to confront this challenge. His statement will follow a long line of declarations by prime ministers and chief Cabinet secretaries expressing sincere remorse over the events of WWII. Twenty years ago, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, the head of the Socialist Party, acknowledged that “Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries,” particularly in Asia. He went on to express “feelings of deep remorse” and offer a “heartfelt apology” to the victims.
Ten years later, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated Murayama’s words, adding that since the war, Japan had been “manifesting its remorse for the war through actions,” especially development assistance and humanitarian activities. Koizumi also pledged that “Japan, as a peace-loving nation, will work to achieve peace and prosperity for all humankind with all its resources.”
Despite these straightforward declarations of regret, some governments and citizens continue to demand more, giving the impression that nothing a Japanese leader says or does will convince them of the country’s remorse. This intractability is, in some cases, understandable; the pain of survivors and their descendants remains acute. But in many other cases, the unwillingness to move beyond history is driven by political interests.
Indeed, political motivations are behind claims that Abe does not agree with past official apologies, despite his repeated assurances that he does, as well as suggestions that he is seeking to revise history, even though he has never denied Japan’s colonial aggression. Moreover, some have produced portrayals of Japan, as a whole, as an unrepentant country — or, worse, as one that is hell-bent on remilitarization.
Such depictions are breathtaking in their audacity, given Japan’s seven-decade record as a peaceful and constructive member of the international community. This is not lost on those in Japan who ask for how long their country will have to apologize, with some even suggesting that after 70 years, a “tweet” on the subject should amount to adequate acknowledgement by Abe.
The prime minister, however, remains committed to issuing a strong and sincere statement on the subject. Early this year, Abe announced his intention to use the 70th anniversary statement to communicate Japan’s remorse for the war, describe the progress the country has made in upholding peace, and describe the contributions that Japan can make to Asia and the rest of the world in the coming decades.
In fact, it is the third component of the announcement that inspires fear in some observers: By helping to build a strong security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan could undermine the ability of some actors to advance their own interests. That is why they launched a whisper campaign against Abe’s statement months before he even began to write it.
But, of course, Asian security and prosperity is in everyone’s interest. Given this, not even the language of Abe’s statement is particularly important; what matters is the determination he expresses, and the actions he takes to follow through — with appropriate humility — on his pledges. And it seems that Abe is, indeed, determined to make real contributions to peace, based on effective cooperation with Japan’s friends and allies.
But if Asia is to move beyond its past, the victims of Japan’s wartime aggression must recognize that the Japan of 2015 is not the Japan of 1931, 1941 or even 1945, and that, as many Asian leaders have realized over the years, forgiveness benefits everyone. In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung responded positively to a statement by former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The governments of Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries have done the same, and now welcome Japan’s commitment to act with its allies to protect regional security.
These countries’ openness to reconciliation have enabled Japan to recast itself as a key arbiter of regional peace and prosperity, not to mention an increasingly dynamic cultural hub. It is time for the rest of the region to follow suit, accepting at face value Japan’s sincere apologies and working with the country to build a better future. At a time when Asia is facing serious security challenges, this stance could not be more urgent.
Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council. She currently is a member of the National Diet. © 2015, Project Syndicate www.project-syndicate.org
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