Critics argue that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor this week to pay his and Japan’s condolences to the fallen as an insincere and calculated gesture. They insist that the visit is geopolitically motivated and counter to his long-standing track record of participating in government committees that have actively sought to whitewash Japan’s imperial past or at least emphasize that Japan was a reluctant participant in a defensive war. Some have even advocated that Abe should visit Seoul and Nanjing to foster reconciliation in Northeast Asia and put the ghosts of Japan’s imperial past behind them.
There is little doubt that geopolitics associated with the deepening Sino-Japanese rivalry is the primary motivation for Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor. Notwithstanding, the visit is rational, strategic and a demonstration that Abe’s personal track record of revisionist and nationalist tendencies can and does coexist with his pragmatic and realist approach to governance.
This has been evidenced in his first stint as prime minister in 2006 where his first visit abroad was to Beijing following the tumultuous Sino-Japanese relations under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He understood at the time that the economic relationship with Beijing was in Japan’s national interest and that he should prioritize policies with the national interests in mind rather than his own personal revisionist wish list.
Upon returning to power in December 2012, Abe has demonstrated his pragmatism to governance numerous times by adopting positions that both appeal to, but also upset his conservative base. For example, his visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 was lauded by his supporters but widely condemned by allies and foes alike. The December 2015 “comfort women” agreement with South Korea was fiercely opposed by the Japan Conference, a small but vocal supporter of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May was also seen by some of his conservative supporters as insufficiently repentant considering the gravity of the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Abe’s willingness to look beyond sovereignty to achieve a resolution over the Northern Territories issues with Russia sparked rage in far-right groups and the visit to Pearl Harbor this week will also be seen by the far right as further evidence of Japan’s postwar emasculation by the United States and Abe’s proactive role in diluting their nationalistic agenda.
In the areas of trade as well, Abe’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership required him to push back against the agricultural lobbyists — traditional support groups for the LDP. Even his August 2015 statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and the “Report of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century” that proceeded it left conservative supporters feeling betrayed and even more determined to push their conservative, nationalist agenda that views Japan as unfairly singled out for its wartime past.
With that history in mind, Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor will be another piece of evidence that Abe is a pragmatic, strategic and rational politician understanding that his personal inclinations are outweighed by Japan’s national imperatives, which include strengthening relations in a multidimensional capacity with the U.S. through reconciliatory acts such as this visit to Pearl Harbor.
With audiences for the visit in Japan, the U.S., East Asia and Europe, the visit demonstrates that Japan is willing to reflect upon the past with a partner that is willing to reciprocate. The U.S. will by-and-large see the visit and gestures of condolences as further evidence that Japan is a friend, a partner and a country that shares the same world view as the U.S.
For South Asian, Southeast Asian, European countries and other developed countries, the visit symbolizes Japan’s commitment to international law, reconciliation and its postwar commitment to pacifism. This includes sharing a similar world view on how states should behave in the postwar era. They also understand the geopolitical motivations for Abe’s visit but they also view Japan’s postwar behavior as exemplary in terms of a vanquished nation that has rejoined the international community of nations that not only follows but contributes to international society.
In contrast, China and South Korea will see the visit as two-faced and further evidence that Japan and Abe is unrepentant for Japan’s brutal rule of Korea from 1910-1945 and for its violent invasion of China, which included atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre and biological experiments on live people. They will question why Abe is not willing to visit Nanjing or Seoul to convey similar feelings of remorse.
While Abe’s pragmatism may lead him to visit Seoul in the future to express his condolences to the Korean people, a trip to Nanjing remains a very distant possibility as history is being instrumentalized to consolidate domestic narratives and understandings of what the conflict with Japan was for the Chinese people but also the role of the ruling party in defeating Japan aggression. In short, the memory of the Nanjing Massacre is used as a national cohesive to bind Chinese citizens to a common trauma — a common experience that inculcates a deep sense of nationalism based on shared humiliation, pain and tragedy. Japan is that cohesive.
At the same time, while Nanjing’s tragic history rightfully elicits empathy and support from countries around the world, the evolving nature and strategic instrumentalization of the historical narrative surrounding Nanjing and the Sino-Japanese war makes it nearly impossible for a Japanese prime minister to visit China and or Nanjing for the explicit purpose of apologizing for Japan’s wartime behavior.
In contrast to a potential China visit to apologize for Japan’s World War II imperialism, South Korea’s willingness to come to an agreement over the comfort women creates political space and reciprocity that provides positive conditions for a potential visit to recognize and apologize for Japan’s colonial treatment of Korea.
While the Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor reciprocal visits to express remorse and a commitment to peace may be the model for reconciliation between a victor and the vanquished, it is not a model for Sino-Japanese or South Korean-Japanese reconciliation. With the instrumentalization of history for domestic and international politics in each of the three countries, a new model is necessary to help these countries achieve Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima peace and reconciliation.
This is where Abe needs to defer to his pragmatic, realistic governing style over his personal right-leaning nationalist inclinations. While not without complication or using valuable political capital, Abe could defuse the instrumentalization of history by asking a third party to conduct a historical investigation and build a commemorative monument related to Japan’s wartime past. While not a perfect solution to dealing with Japan’s past and postwar historical obfuscation, a third party may be able to create political space to learn and acknowledge Japan’s imperial behavior in a non-politicized, non-instrumentalized manner.
Stephen R. Nagy is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University.