Seventy Years Since World War II: Historical Perceptions and Present Realities

Watanabe Tsuneo [Profile]

[2015.04.27] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

It seems to me that Western media coverage of historical perceptions in East Asia is misleading. While Japan’s acts of violence against the global order in the past should certainly be criticized, attention should also be directed at the aggressive challenges to the international order in our own time.

Missing the Point?

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, bringing a greater focus than usual on discussion of issues relating to history and historical perceptions. There is strong interest from not only China and South Korea but also North America and Europe in Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s historical views and in the content of the statement he will deliver on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. This interest reflects concern that disputes over the historical record might stoke the fires of nationalism in both Japan and China, leading to confrontation and increasing the chances of a military clash.

If the purpose of the commentary carried by major Western media organs concerning the historical views of Abe and his administration is to avert conflicts and promote stability in Asia, so far it has failed to do so. Unconstructive and counterproductive opinions are what catch the eye. Commentators do not scrutinize or give details of the history in question, confining themselves to presenting superficial arguments about perceptions of the past based on modern political principles and ethical standpoints. And they seem little aware of the serious reality that the war of words over Japan’s past has deflected attention from current efforts to upset the international order in East Asia.

Abe’s Stance

The Western media has focused recently on the question of whether historical revisionists in Japan are seeking to justify the nation’s aggressive actions in China in the 1930s. It is undeniable that there are some people who are doing so. Japan is a democratic country that guarantees freedom of expression, and such talk is not restricted.

If there were any signs that Japan was boosting its military power to the point where it could pose a threat to neighboring countries and pursuing expansionism with the aim of changing the existing international order through force, one could understand Western sensitivity toward Japanese revisionism. But this is not the case.

Some articles describe Abe himself as a historical revisionist. In fact, though he is a political conservative, he is also a firm supporter of Japan’s partnership with the United States, which was the prime mover in establishing the postwar international order. And although he has shown an individual insistence on mourning Japan’s war dead at Yasukuni Shrine, he is not working to change this postwar order; on the contrary, he strongly upholds it.

The fear that justification of past aggression could pave the way for future destabilizing acts by Japan is presumably why historical revisionism is seen as a significant issue. Ironically, however, the country that is now causing the most anxiety by throwing its weight around in Asia is not Japan but China, the country that so fiercely criticizes Japanese perceptions of history.

Coercive Efforts to Redraw Borders

I think it is natural for China to worry about Japanese historical perceptions. Having suffered from Japanese aggression in the 1930s, it has a right to express such concerns. The problem is that Western experts do not carefully separate their criticism of Japanese historical views from discussion of China’s current efforts to extend its borders in the South and East China Seas. This complicates the issues, and ends up hindering reconciliation.

I was once asked by a European reporter, “Why does Japan take a stance that causes unnecessary antagonism with China for the sake of defending a group of small uninhabited islands [the Senkaku Islands]?” I replied, “If Japan compromised on the Senkaku Islands, it would mean giving in to the pressure that China has applied by dispatching large numbers of government vessels to the vicinity. Allowing a powerful country like China to impose border changes on its neighbors would set a dangerous precedent in terms of maintaining the international order.” This is the same kind of issue as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which sparked criticism and sanctions from Western countries.

On September 3 this year, a Russian government delegation will take part in the planned Chinese celebrations on Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. But the ceremony’s message of condemnation against past Japanese belligerence will be valid only if the participants themselves are recognizing and observing the principle that the existing order is not to be changed by force.

Seven Decades of Nonaggression and Economic Assistance

The revisionist words and deeds of some Japanese, while deserving of criticism, are not representative of the thinking of most of the Japanese people, nor do they match Japan’s conduct as a nation since 1945.

Over the seven decades since the end of World War II, Japan has strictly observed Article 9 of its Constitution, which prohibits the use of military force to resolve international disputes, and has earnestly pursued a nonaggressive defense policy. What has made it possible for Japan to maintain this posture in a tough international environment is its alliance with the United States, a country with formidable military power. But until July 1, 2014, even the right to exercise collective self-defense, fundamental for maintaining a smoothly operating alliance, was interpreted as contrary to the spirit of Article 9 and therefore unconstitutional. This extreme self-restraint on Japan’s part had the potential to destroy the bilateral alliance, which, like any such pact, depends on give and take. So last July the Abe cabinet adopted a revised interpretation of the Constitution, one that allows limited exercise of collective self-defense. This new interpretation maintains the basic spirit of Article 9, under which Japan pursues a nonaggressive defense policy with the minimum necessary level of military capability.

In 1952, the Kuomintang government of Taiwan (Republic of China) led by Chiang Kai-Shek, who had previously fought the Japanese in mainland China, waived the right to war reparations from Japan in the spirit of forgiveness. The Japanese people were deeply moved by this act and Japan subsequently helped to boost Taiwan’s economic development. When Japan normalized its relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972, Chairman Mao Zedong similarly did not demand reparations. In addition to expressing remorse for its colonialism and wartime actions and apologizing to China and other Asian countries on a number of occasions, Japan has provided significant economic assistance to its neighbors and promoted friendly relations with them.

As calculated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan has provided more than ¥3 trillion in official development assistance to China since it began doing so in 1979. It ceased providing yen loans in 2007, but grant aid, which does not have to be repaid, and technical assistance continue to this day. The Sankei Shimbun calculated that in 2011, based on an exchange rate of ¥100 to the dollar, Japan supplied China with $300 million in ODA, consisting of $13 million in grant aid and $287 million in technical assistance. The conservative daily sharply questioned why Japan should bankroll a country that was pursuing expansionist policies, such as repeatedly violating the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands and unilaterally establishing an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea.

Media Obstacles to Reconciliation

The Western media’s coverage and criticism of historical perceptions in Japan focus heavily on the words of a few conservatives, ignoring the Japanese government’s composed stance toward China and other neighboring countries. This kind of blinkered coverage is liable to hinder resolution of the friction between China and Japan.

For example, Western criticism of Japanese views of history provides international support, even if unintentionally, for the anti-Japanese nationalism of Chinese people, who are fed a steady stream of patriotic World War II dramas about the struggle against Japan on domestic television. This sentiment presents a major hurdle to reconciliation for both Japanese leaders and their Chinese counterparts, who in reality gain neither economic nor political profit from extended confrontation with Japan. I respect President Xi Jinping’s decision to shake Prime Minister Abe’s hand at last November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, but his pained expression on doing so is still fresh in Japanese memories.

To avoid conflict between Japan and China, it is not enough merely to criticize Japanese perceptions of history. The international community must take a balanced approach and seek to control Chinese expansionism. As the world marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, opposition to historical revisionism that seeks to justify the behavior of Germany and Japan in the years leading up to the war needs to be grounded in a common understanding that contemporary challenges to the international order, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Chinese efforts to extend its borders in the East and South China Seas, cannot be accepted. And we must ensure that the existence of revisionist views of history is not taken as grounds to justify such present-day behavior.

What I would like to see from the Western media, which should be an impartial referee on Japan-China issues, is cool-headed discussion and adoption of a perspective informed by a careful look at East Asian history so as not to inflame the unproductive antagonism over historical issues. Historical perceptions are important as a source of lessons to be learned and as a basis for avoidance of needless confrontation in contemporary relations between countries. But concern over these perceptions must not be allowed to keep us from seeing the true nature of the problems in international relations today.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on April 2, 2015. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President Xi Jinping shake hands at their meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing on November 10, 2014. © Jiji.)

  • [2015.04.27]

Director of policy research and senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation. Born in 1963. Graduated from the Tōhoku University School of Dentistry. Completed his master’s degree in political science at the New School for Social Research in New York, United States. Has served as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior fellow at the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute. Specializes in Japan-US relations, security policy in Asia, and civil-military relations. Works include 2025 nen Bei-Chū gyakuten: Rekishi ga oshieru Bei-Chū kankei no shinjitsu (Will China Overtake the United States in 2025? History Tells the Truth About US-China Relations).

Related articles
Other columns

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news