The Abe statement, approved by the Cabinet on Aug. 14, has elevated a myopic and exonerating revisionist narrative of history to Japan’s official policy.
The vague and ambiguous references to past misdeeds, the inadequate recognition of Japanese aggression and the horrors inflicted, the minimalist nods toward contrition and putting an end to apology are now state policy. This is a major watershed in Japan’s postwar history that digs a deep diplomatic hole and tarnishes the nation’s significant and praiseworthy achievements of the past seven decades. Ironically, given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s intention of making a statement focused on the future, his slippery circumlocutions about history have only heightened scrutiny of Japan’s wartime past and current perpetrator’s fatigue.
There was a very interesting contrast in the 70th anniversary commemoration statements by Abe and Emperor Akihito that highlights the ongoing political divide between the revisionists and the understanding of most Japanese about how the nation got to where it is today. Citing the deaths of more than 3 million Japanese during World War II, and the deprivation that prevailed, Abe asserted: “The peace we enjoy today exists only upon such precious sacrifices. And therein lies the origin of postwar Japan.”
This is the revisionist conceit: that all that carnage in what Abe’s advisory panel termed a “reckless” war was worthwhile because it is the basis for the peace and prosperity now enjoyed by contemporary Japanese. This panel was established in February and delivered its final report to the prime minister on Aug. 6 as a reference for his statement, which came a week later. It was striking that this report was presented on the day that Japan commemorates the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and contemplates the folly of war. The panel called this war “reckless” and also noted that Japan wreaked havoc in Asia, presided over a cruel colonial system that stifled self-determination and brought devastation on Japan. As a result, it says “the responsibilities of the Japanese government and military leaders from the 1930s and beyond are very serious indeed.”
The Abe statement is equivocal on this issue of responsibility and hazy about the suffering inflicted. It honors the war dead by venerating their sacrifice, but also suggests that the nightmare imposed on the Japanese people and their Asian neighbors by irresponsible wartime leaders somehow lead to peace. Well, yes, the devastation and defeat of Japan lead to surrender and then peace, but the logic is unsettling: Abe is suggesting that the peace enjoyed today came from Japanese aggression in the 1930s and ’40s, and thereby tries to bestow some legitimacy on those actions.
This underhanded justification of war is not necessary to honor the war dead. They died because Japan’s leaders at the time, including Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, launched Japan into this avoidable tragedy. Those leaders held Japanese lives cheap, and they were sacrificed and subjected to awful horrors for an ignominious cause. Dressing this sanguinary rampage up as the bedrock of contemporary Japan is a deplorable deceit. Their deaths were in vain because Japan’s regional rampage that claimed perhaps as many as 20 million Asian lives, and trampled on the dignity and welfare of countless more, was not in service of a noble mission.
Abe’s advisory panel pointedly rejected the revisionist assertion that Japan fought the war to liberate Asians from the yoke of Western colonialism. Revisionists often invoke this ostensible pan-Asian crusade in an effort to ennoble Japan’s ignoble aggression. They try to portray Japan’s sacrifices as worthwhile because they were in service of an altruistic mission. But Abe’s handpicked advisory panel bluntly rejected this wishful thinking, stating that decolonization in Asia was an unintended consequence, and never a goal, of wartime Japan.
The prime minister wisely refrained from trying to invoke this revisionist liberation trope, cognizant perhaps that this narrative only appeals to the converted. But it is precisely the widespread dismissal of their rendering of history as hogwash that riles and inspires revisionists, ostensibly in service to the Imperial Household.
The Emperor, however, spoke for most Japanese on Aug. 15 when he repudiated the revisionist assertion that wartime sacrifices begot contemporary peace.
“Our country today enjoys peace and prosperity, thanks to the ceaseless efforts made by the people of Japan toward recovery from the devastation of the war and toward development, always backed by their earnest desire for the continuation of peace.”
Peace and prosperity, in the Emperor’s view, did not come from treating the Japanese people like cannon fodder during the war, but rather was based on their postwar efforts to overcome the tragedy inflicted by the nation’s warmongering leaders, who provoked and prolonged the suffering that was endured. The Emperor clearly did not honor the senseless waste of Japanese lives as the foundation of 21st century Japan, as the prime minister did, and instead gave credit where it was due — to the people and their relentless commitment to peace. The subtext here appears to be a not-so-subtle suggestion that Abe is leading the nation away from this peaceful path with his legislation targeting the pacifist Constitution.
As Abe said, history is harsh — what was done can not be undone — but his advisory panel suggested that overcoming the current impasse in relations with Beijing and Seoul requires “remorse over the past and reclosing the buttons done up incorrectly in the past.” But the revisionists have continually fumbled with these buttons and resist corrections to their incorrect and deeply flawed analysis of wartime Japan. Sure, they have the right to voice their benighted views, but in exercising their right to “history hate speech,” aren’t they guilty of provoking Japan’s victims?
Those who accuse Seoul and Beijing of playing the history card need to look into the mirror and reflect on the perpetrator’s responsibility. Revisionists seek to restore the dignity of Japan by downplaying and denying past depredations that trample on the dignity and sensitivities of the two nations that suffered most from Japanese aggression and subjugation. This is counterproductive because it riles the neighbors and inflames the memory wars that sidetrack efforts to grapple with other pressing matters.
In lavish understatement, the advisory panel’s report concludes that “it cannot be said that reconciliation with China and the Republic of Korea has been fully achieved.” The revisionists bear significant responsibility for this sad state of affairs, but clearly Seoul and Beijing need to be more receptive to Japanese overtures. However, now that revisionism has been consecrated as Japan’s official position, the context has become decidedly less favorable.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.