In the American lexicon, “Pearl Harbor” is synonymous with treachery and betrayal. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, pundits invoked the term in ways that have taken many Japanese aback, surprised that the old associations linger and uncomfortable with the wartime incident being compared to a terrorist act.
This week Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Pearl Harbor in a gesture of contrition that will reciprocate President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Like Obama he will not apologize. The symbolism of Japan’s leader returning to the “scene of the crime” may help heal the wounds of the shared past between nations that have become close allies, but can Abe put the demons to rest?
It’s the right message, but Abe is a deeply flawed messenger. Obama’s act of contrition conveyed sincerity and remorse because his anti-nuclear weapons stance endowed him with credibility at Hiroshima even if he hasn’t achieved much in that domain.
What is Abe’s track record on Japan’s wartime history? Since he was elected to the Diet in 1993, Abe has joined various study groups that seek to downplay, deny and mitigate Japan’s wartime record. He has consistently worked to undermine the 1993 Kono statement regarding state responsibility for the wartime “comfort women” system and has overseen textbook revisions that retreat from more forthright narratives about Japan’s misdeeds.
Abe and other revisionists seek to rewrite and rehabilitate Japan’s wartime history, arguing that Japan reluctantly fought a defensive war, one that the Allied powers forced upon it. Revisionists insist that the prevailing narrative is biased against Japan and that the nation has been wrongly blamed for initiating a war of Imperial aggression. That means overlooking Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, which began in 1931, and its subsequent attempts to conquer China from 1937 onward. This brutal rampage through China had nothing to do with Western provocations or liberation; it was merely an attempt to subjugate.
To justify these actions, revisionists assert that Japan sought to liberate Asia from Western colonialism. Alas, this idea of Pan-Asian liberation is used to distract attention from the reality that, after Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded and occupied Western colonies in Asia to extract natural resources for the war effort. According to the diary of wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, it was all about resources.
In light of Abe’s revisionist leanings, is he the man who can sincerely convey remorse about what happened at Pearl Harbor? In December 2013, he visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, ground zero for an unrepentant view about Japan’s wartime misdeeds. Anyone in doubt about the shrine’s take on WWII can visit the adjacent Yushukan museum where an exculpatory version of Japan’s wartime history is on display. It is for this reason that the U.S. Department of State issued a stinging rebuke following Abe’s pilgrimage.
In 2014, on a visit to Japan, Obama also gave Abe a hard time about the comfort women issue because Abe has caviled at the horrors inflicted and Japan’s responsibility for this system of forced prostitution. Exasperated that Japan and South Korea could not get over their shared history, Obama pressured Abe to soften his stance on comfort women, evident in Abe’s Diet remarks that he wouldn’t abandon the Kono Statement. Abe’s pledge facilitated a subsequent trilateral meeting in the Netherlands on the issue.
Washington also nudged Seoul and Tokyo to reach an 2015 agreement regarding comfort women. It is an accord that has never been made public and Abe’s alleged apology is only hearsay since he avoided doing so publicly or in writing. This diplomatic deceit will not bring lasting resolution. The contretemps between Japan and UNESCO in recent months over a multilateral submission of a dossier on comfort women to the agency’s Memory of the World Register suggest that these horrors can’t be ignored just because diplomats decide to do so. Tokyo’s belated payment of its UNESCO dues to protest approval of China’s submission on Japan’s Nanking atrocities underscores Team Abe’s petulant and counterproductive handling of history controversies.
On the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack this year, one of Abe’s advisers, ex-diplomat Kuni Miyake, wrote an op-ed suggesting China heed the lessons of Pearl Harbor. His message is that China, like Japan in 1941, has a choice and should rethink its current efforts to challenge the U.S.-dominated status quo in Asia. However, one big difference is that China today is not as weak economically or militarily vis-a-vis America as Japan was in 1941. Moreover, China is not being backed into a corner by the kind of sanctions that promoted Japan to lash out in desperation. And Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has shelved the July arbitration ruling denying China’s grandiose claims in the South China Sea in exchange for inducements in the form of large infrastructure investments — an adroit transactional diplomacy that Beijing has also deployed to co-opt ASEAN. Back in 1941, Japan only offered oppressed Asians empty promises of independence.
One wonders if Abe’s Pearl Harbor photo op is inspired more by contemporary geopolitical considerations than sincere remorse about initiating a war that devastated the region. It is a solemn occasion to reflect on the folly of war and the need to do anything to prevent it. If one believes that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is the most urgent existential threat in the region, there are other lessons from Pearl Harbor to consider than simply admonishing China not to emulate Japan’s reckless bellicosity and grandiose designs.
Abe has wasted considerable time on Russia, where relatively little is at stake, but done little to engage China — a case of ill-judged priorities. Although no examples come to mind of status quo powers conceding enough to meet the aspirations of rising powers, or such powers accepting less than they feel they are owed, the art of diplomacy is trying to find a way around such impasses where each side concedes more than they wish and agrees to less than they desire.
If Abe really wants to overcome Japan’s history problem with his northeast Asian neighbors, he should finish what he is starting at Pearl Harbor by visiting Nanjing, Seoul and Pyongyang. This could lessen tensions and set the stage for a breakthrough on contemporary issues that divide.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.
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