Abe’s unconvincing attempt to whitewash Japan’s history


The more I study the statement issued in the name of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet on Aug. 14, the more it disappoints me. The statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II glosses over unpalatable facts and attempts to interpret them in a favorable way for Japan.

Most Japanese today cannot be held responsible for the crimes committed by their leaders before they were born any more than we can be held responsible for the iniquities of the slave trade or other crimes committed by our ancestors. The Russians today are not responsible for Stalin’s crimes. Nor are today’s Chinese culpable for the massacres and misery caused by that monster Mao Zedong. But we all need to know the basic facts if only to try to ensure that we do not repeat the errors. Cruelty and greed are characteristics sadly found everywhere.

Since the Meiji Restoration, Japanese achievements in industry and commerce have been paralleled in art and culture, but in the first half of the 20th century Japan was led by misguided leaders to “become a challenger to the international order,” to use the euphemism of the Abe statement. Unfortunately the first part of the statement is so full of such euphemisms and vague phraseology that it reads to anyone who knows the facts as a totally unconvincing attempt to whitewash recent Japanese history and suggests that Japan was forced to go to war by the attitude and actions of the rest of the world.

The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 had nothing to do with anti-colonialism, but was the precursor of the annexation of Korea and set Japanese sights on Manchuria. Japan took advantage of World War I to make the infamous 21 demands on China and to promote its economic interests in China.

The whole world suffered in the Great Depression. Japan’s situation was no worse than in Britain or the United States, but in Abe’s statement it was made an excuse for the demise of Taisho democracy.

The rising power of the Japanese military was boosted by the cult of the Emperor and the mythology of State Shinto. Japan’s military leaders succeeded in misusing Japanese patriotism to promote their power.

The Manchurian incident was manufactured by the military, as was Japanese aggression in China. It was Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations that forced its failure.

Even though there can never be a final count of the numbers killed in the Nanjing massacre it surely should have been mentioned. It should also have been acknowledged that Japan began in China the horrors of aerial bombardment of unprotected civilian targets and open cities.

No mention was made of the tripartite pact with Germany and Italy that bound Japan to the evil forces of Nazism and Fascism. While Japan did not participate in the Holocaust and some Japanese did their best to help persecuted Jewish people, Japan backed Nazi Germany’s attempts to dominate and oppress Europe and defeat the Allies, which had joined together to defeat what can only be described as the forces of evil.

Was it out of a sense of shame for Japanese treachery that no mention was made in Abe’s statement of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor before a declaration of war was made? There was also no admission that the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere was a disguise for Japanese aims to bring Asia under Japanese domination.

Why was nothing said about the criminal behavior of Japanese leaders in 1945 in refusing to admit that Japan was doomed to be defeated? They should have been condemned not merely for their blindness to facts but also for their cowardice in refusing to admit that they had failed. They must share responsibility for the cruel sufferings inflicted on Japanese cities in those terrible months 70 years ago before the Emperor admitted the truth.

The absence of a historically accurate narrative detracts from the value of some very welcome phrases in the statement. While there was no new apology, the words in the Murayama statement still stand. The phrases about the role and sacrifices of Asian women were welcome, although the welcome would be warmer if the Kono statement about the “comfort women” had been repeated.

I am glad that the statement finally acknowledges the suffering of allied prisoners of war at the hands of the Japanese military. So often Japanese governments have seemed to do all they could not to admit responsibility for fear that admission might cost money.

I welcome the commitments in the final paragraphs to an open economic system, to the maintenance of peace and the settlement of disputes by peaceful means. I attach great importance to the upholding of human rights and the rule of law.

If Abe and his government want to win the trust of Japan’s friends and allies they will need to show through their actions that these are not just pious cliches but real and firm commitments.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

  • Pangur

    Gerhard Schöder, the former German Chancellor once explained the position of Germans born during or after the war regarding WW II like this (and I paraphrase): As a Nations Germany remains responsible for what happened during WW II, but Germans born during and after the War are not guilty of the crimes committed during the War. Perhaps the Japanese people should adopt a similar point of view.

    • JimmyJM

      In a way, you’ve got it. The key word is “responsible”. Japan has said what it had to say and paid reparations it had to pay because the rest of the world was demanding it, not because it felt it was responsible for the carnage and had to make amends. It paid reparations because it lost, not because it was the right thing to do. Much of the “regret” we hear expressed today is regret at losing the war, not because of the horror it inflicted on other nations. I believe the Emperor is the exception to this. If only more Japanese would follow his lead. Certainly those born during and after the war bear no guilt in the actions of Japan during those years but the facts and the history are there for all to see and attempted cover-ups only make things worse.

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  • Richard Solomon

    I largelynagree with this balanced, thorough, and nuanced analysis of Abe’s statement. I would add two other points.

    First, nowhere did Abe express remorse, let alone apologize, for himself. It left me thinking he said what he felt he had to: reiterate the 1995 apology, in order to not alienate China, S Korea, other Asian nations, and the USA. But he did not clearly state that he agrees with the fact that Japan engaged in aggression, harmed its victims, etc.

    Second, Abe expressed a desire that Japan not need to keep apologizing in the years to come. But he did not even recognize, let alone articulate, a plan for what Japan itself needs to do to reach that point of acceptance and reconciliation with its neighbors. There as no mention of the need for his country to MAKE AMENDS to the victims of its misdeeds. Eg, meet with victims, pay them preparations, build memorial sites and museums to honor the victims, hold commemorative services with victims to honor them. Stop white washing the history of the war in history textbooks. Stop pressuring foreign publishers to do the same.

    As long as Japan fails to do these kinds of things for/with

    • Clickonthewhatnow

      Japan has already made enough reparations, and apologies. What needs to be taken care of is the politicians who undermine that work by saying stupid things about WWII topics. Fine and expel from office politicians that say that the use of comfort women could not be helped, or that everyone was doing it. If this is put into effect and followed through on, you’ll see the politicians not making these comments, which is the biggest problem in international relations regarding WWII.

      As for whitewashing the textbooks, that is something that there needs to be a global committee created for to keep all the countries on task for that (since, you know, all countries do it). You can’t just say Japan shouldn’t do it (ESPECIALLY when two of the countries voicing that statement are China and South Korea).

      As for true reconciliation with their neighbors, Japan’s actions are only half of it. As long as China and South Korea do horrible things that they need to deflect the anger of the people from, everything Japan does will be seen as “not enough”.

      • You don’t decide anything, otaku.

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        Much like you don’t bring anything to the conversation. What was the point of your comment? Just… ugh.

      • Kyle

        “South Korea do horrible things that they need to deflect the anger of the people from”

        You have a strange perception of South Korea, it is a democratic society that has all the freedoms Japan has. While not perfect, there is certainly no horrible crimes the ROK government is committing against its own citizens.

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        Not on par with China, to be certain. But if you think that they would ever accept the issue as closed… well, with multitudes of apologies and reparations given, why hasn’t it, if not for something to rally their people around every once in a while? How much more money and/or how many more apologies are needed? And again, if it’s about the history books in Japan, well, Korea’s hardly perfect in that situation themselves, so they should be careful with stones while they live in a glass house.

      • Kyle

        You tend to exaggerate in your last statement, but it is also sprinkled with truth. Japan has done relatively little in regards to addressing the Colonization of Korea and there has been some positive gestures in regards to WWII victims on the Korean peninsula. Japan’s official stance is that the Colonization of Korea was legal. With the normalization of relations in 1965, some of the major issues were seemingly solved (Japan’s perspective). In addition, Japan commendably set up the Asian Women’s Fund. But for most Koreans, 1905 – 1950 are all connected. You cannot solve the issue without the full spectrum of challenges being addressed.

        Three things become important as Korea movies from 3rd world to OECD. 1) In 1965 Korea NEEDS Japan and US assistance, and is therefore a weaker party in the negations to normalize relations 2) Korea is struggling with 40 years of colonization, anti-Japanese and pro-Japanese Koreans 3) Extensive historical research and public knowledge of Japanese war crimes are not part of the public discourse (but they are today)

        These 3 factors develop into serious consequences. Korea is still in a flux (today), about how to view itself and Japan. One must not forget all of these complex issues have been woven together, a split country, a result of Japanese Annexation and the USSR/US responses to the end of WWII. Japan claims Takeshiima/Dokdo, which was gained during the colonial period. Japanese museums, particularly in Tokyo continue to hold thousands of national treasures that were stolen or confiscated “legally” during the colonial period. Comfort Women become far more public, and with pressure from the state, largely do not participate with the Asian Women’s Fund (mistake in my view). Lastly, Japanese prime ministers, which there have been so many over the last 20-30 years, display a wide range of interpretations of Japan’s Colonial Period and WWII, some of the views are offensive, some are compassionate.

        Korea is now one of the most advanced nations on earth, with a stable democracy, and growing economy. Contemporary Korea is also very nationalistic, with a strong public need to reclaim its culture, language, history, etc. As you hint at, some Korean politicians use this identity/historical struggle to paint Japan as the scapegoat.

        For true reconciliation to occur, it is not just Korea’s responsibility to let bygones be bygones. It takes a partner, and leaders that are willing take make bold choices. The Japanese leadership and the Korean Government need to make concessions and discuss how to rectify historical, territorial, and cultural issues. It can be done. Korea needs to help shape an environment where Japan does not feel forced to apologize, but one in which the sincerity will not be questioned or expected to be endlessly repeated. Japan’s government needs to recognize that actions are far more than “carefully chosen remarks”. Why is Japan still claiming small rocks/islands that were traditionally part of Korea, why are so few cultural artifacts returned to Korea, why are Japanese ministers visiting the Yasukuni Shrine regularly? Certainly Japan has expressed remorse, deep sadness, and regret. But by and large, these have been little more than carefully chosen words.

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        Right, because after the sincere apologies (not Abe era or even recent) nothing changed, and Japan was still called upon to forever apologize for war actions of which no one is still alive. Does Vietnam do the same to Korea, still, after all these years? And yeah, in regards to Yasukuni, unless you want to give the government the ability to control religion, which was removed by the constitution, they cannot choose who is in the shrine. So what you’re saying is that because 14 war criminals were enchrined, politicians lose their right to honour the war dead? Pretty horrible.

      • Kyle

        Korea and Japan ties have not always been so frayed as they are now, in fact there have been plenty of years in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s where there was little or no talk of Dokdo, comfort women, forced labor, or other issues.

        “they cannot choose who is in the shrine.” This is incorrect, there has been calls within the Japanese public and government to remove the names on a couple occasions. Shinto Priests eventually decided to refuse the request.

        Are you really comparing Korean soldiers participating in the Vietnam War with the Japanese Colonial Period/WWII? Seriously?

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        When I said “they cannot choose who is in the shrine”, I referred to the government. The government cannot choose who is in the shrine, thus they asked the shrine to remove names instead of TELLING them to. Kapiche?

  • sola makise

    Japan already apologized enough.
    There are media and the country which I do not know the fact or twist the fact, and tell.
    Then I heard it, but did the American and European countries apologize to the countries of the East Asia that performed colonial rule?
    There are not a child and the grandchild who do not experience WWII because Japan which is why is a defeated nation if a line falls below apology?

    • They are exploiters like you white and imperialist followers and wannabes, but at least they didn’t conduct human experiments and mass rape, thieving, torturing and killing including babies and children on the people in their colonies like you western oriental gentlemen animals did.

      • Clickonthewhatnow

        Someone needs to brush up on their history!

  • Jack

    For a moment there I thought I heard the butchers of Iraq preaching about the evils of war, and the drone-bombers of wedding parties on the horror of collateral damage.


    • Jonathan Fields

      And what country, pray tell, are you from that is completely immune to criticism?

      • Jack

        Are you seriously following up “don’t murder like we do” with “don’t lie about it like we do”?

      • Jonathan Fields

        Since you seem to have trouble with reading comprehension, I’ll put it more simply. Being from a country that does bad things does not mean you can’t comment on another country’s bad things. I almost used the words ‘preclude’ and ‘misdeeds’ there, but I wasn’t sure that you’d understand.

      • Jack

        So your only concern in your first response was my own country… because it’s irrelevant?

        Try working on your writing comprehension before you jump into big words.

      • Jonathan Fields

        At least you’re being obtuse on purpose now. Congrats, I suppose.

  • wind

    I am looking forward to Cortazzi’s next column about his disappointment with the UK’s lack of apology to the millions of non-Whites who suffered, were tortured and died under British imperialism. Apparently of little or no concern to him whatsoever, horrific racist victimization by the UK lasted well beyond WWII. Either that, or I’ll look forward to spending money currently on the Japan Times on something other than a broken record for morons who have no problem with crimes against humanity so long as they’re conducted by English-speaking countries.

    • Clickonthewhatnow

      You’re spending money on the Japan Times? My condolences.

    • Jonathan Fields

      There are very few sources that actually talk about these issues. The Japan Times can definitely sound like a broken record at times, but it’s a liberal paper which focuses on Japan. What do you expect?

      I’m looking forward to your next comment about how the Sankei criticizes China too much.

      • wind

        Thank you for a constructive response, which I respect.

        I don’t know how much influence we NJs have in Japanese society – to me it appears quite limited. Though I like competition when it’s healthy, I don’t like adolescent-style nationalistic racisms any more than you do. That’s why I question addressing any disturbing nationalisms with something that could easily come across as some other country’s pompous nationalisms.

        Imagine if the British Ambassador had devoted even just a measly paragraph to his own country’s successful or failed attempts to address past human rights abuses. Wouldn’t that dramatically change the tone of his piece? Wouldn’t it be more persuasive to adopt an approach along the lines of “Our country too indulged in staring at world maps in imperial red at horrific cost to others. We came to understand that human rights trump all else, here’s why, and we hope you will join us”.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Ambassador Cortazzi belongs to a group of people who are well aware of the origins of revisionism in Japan and familiar with the language of “beautification” and obfuscation that is part and parcel of the tactics of the revisionists. I note a lot of the negative comments against him use similar tactics.

    Go on speaking out clearly, Ambassador.