The History Issue Clouding Japan’s Relations with Its Neighbors

Shiraishi Takashi [Profile]

[2013.05.31] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | االعربية |

President Park Geun-hye Calls for a “Correct” Perception of History

Conflicting ideas about history are becoming an increasingly intractable problem between Japan and its neighbors.

According to reports in the South Korean media, at her summit meeting with US President Barack Obama on May 6, President Park Geun-hye declared that Japan must have a correct perception of history for the sake of peace in Northeast Asia. And in her address to a joint session of the US Congress two days later, the South Korean leader stated, “[Northeast Asia’s] economies are gaining ever greater clout and becoming more and more interlinked. Yet, differences stemming from history are widening. . . . For where there is failure to acknowledge honestly what happened yesterday, there can be no tomorrow.”

I cannot understand what President Park was trying to accomplish by raising the issue of Japanese and Korean perceptions of history during her visit to the United States. Was she suggesting that the United States should abrogate its alliance with Japan? When she talks of a “correct” perception of history, she is of course referring to the view advanced by the South Korean government. But I seriously wonder how correct her own perception is with respect to the efforts that the governments of both Japan and South Korea have made since the 1990s to deal with the history issue.

As I noted in this column last September, back in 1998 South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung and Japan’s Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō issued a joint statement titled “A New Japan–Republic of Korea Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century,” which included the following passages:

The two leaders shared the view that in order for Japan and the Republic of Korea to build solid, good-neighborly and friendly relations in the twenty-first century, it was important that both countries squarely face the past and develop relations based on mutual understanding and trust.

Looking back on the relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea during this century, Prime Minister Obuchi regarded in a spirit of humility the fact of history that Japan caused, during a certain period in the past, tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule, and expressed his deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this fact.

President Kim accepted with sincerity this statement of Prime Minister Obuchi’s recognition of history and expressed his appreciation for it. He also expressed his view that the present calls upon both countries to overcome their unfortunate history and to build a future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation as well as good-neighborly and friendly cooperation.

In addition, on the basis of a 2001 agreement between South Korea’s President Roh Moo-hyun and Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō, history scholars from the two countries conducted joint studies from 2002 through 2010 and issued reports on their work. So if President Park is going to talk about a correct perception of history, her remarks should be based on a correct perception of the history of these bilateral efforts.

The Deputy Prime Minister Visits Yasukuni

In Japan, meanwhile, on April 21 Deputy Prime Minister Asō Tarō visited Yasukuni Shrine, the Shintō institution dedicated to the spirits of Japan’s war dead, on the occasion of its spring festival. This is a puzzling move, inasmuch as he has previously called for the removal of the class A war criminals whose spirits are currently among those enshrined there. But Prime Minister Abe Shinzō evidently felt the need to express his support for Asō’s visit, rather than merely dismiss it as an independent action by a member of his cabinet. Though Abe himself has refrained from visiting Yasukuni since the start of his current term as prime minister last December, he has publicly declared that he deeply regrets not having visited the shrine during his previous premiership (September 2006–September 2007). Speaking to the upper house Budget Committee three days after Asō’s visit, the prime minister said, “It is only natural to express reverence for the spirits of the war dead who lost their precious lives for the sake of the nation. The members of my cabinet will not yield in the face of any sort of intimidation. I am assuring their freedom.”

Prime Minister Abe has also previously declared his intention of marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015 with the issuance of a future-oriented “Abe Statement,” based on a review of the 1995 “Murayama Statement” (issued by then Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi), which acknowledged and apologized for Japan’s past colonial rule and aggression. It is presumably with this in mind that the prime minister, speaking to the upper house Budget Committee on April 22, declared, “It is not the case that [my administration] is carrying on [with the Murayama Statement] as is.” And the following day he asserted that there is no set definition of the term “aggression,” saying that its use in international relations depends on the viewpoint of the country concerned. But he adjusted his course in remarks to the upper house Budget Committee on May 15, declaring that his administration was carrying on with the posture of previous administrations as a whole, and that the Abe cabinet was in the position of inheriting the statements issued by earlier cabinets. He also noted that since any remarks he might make about perceptions of history are liable to develop into diplomatic issues, such matters should be left for historians to debate.

On the international scene, there is virtually no support for the revisionist views of history expressed by some in Japan. The more politicians discuss issues relating to historical perceptions, the more politicized these issues become. And when a deputy prime minister visits Yasukuni, the politicization progresses further. This has caused the spirit of the 1998 joint statement between Japan and South Korea to disappear, along with the efforts of the Japan–South Korea and Japan-China teams of historians who conducted joint research in the first decade of the new millennium. As Prime Minister Abe himself finally said, issues relating to historical perceptions are best left to historians. And it should not be forgotten that words and deeds from senior government officials and politicians about historical matters injure international trust in Japan.

If the Japanese government wants to address this matter further, it should establish a program to promote research on colonial rule, wars, revolutions, and counterrevolutions in twentieth-century Asia. This should involve naming a selection committee made up of persons whose integrity is highly reputed internationally among historians and having them produce an academic journal containing peer-reviewed reports on research results in at least three languages from among English, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.

People’s Daily Article Questions Japan’s Sovereignty over Okinawa

On May 8 the People’s Daily, an organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, published an article by two scholars, Zhang Haipeng and Li Guoqiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, titled “A Discussion of the Maguan Treaty and the Diaoyu Islands Issue.” Cherry-picking from a 2007 article by Hamakawa Kyōko, “Senkaku shotō no ryōyūken o meguru ronten” (Points at Issue Concerning Sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, Chōsa to jōhō 565), the authors argue that Japan snatched the Senkakus (called the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese) from Qing-Dynasty China and “legitimized” this pilferage under the Treaty of Shimonoseki (called the Maguan Treaty by the Chinese) at the end of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, but that China had placed these islands under administration by Taiwan and had exerted effective control over them for a long time.

That part of the article was no surprise, but the authors went on to open a veritable Pandora’s box regarding China’s view of history and its territorial claims. What drew considerable attention both in Japan and elsewhere around the world was their suggestion that Japan’s ownership of the Ryūkyū Islands (Okinawa Prefecture) should be “revisited.”

Zhang and Li did not come out with an assertion that Okinawa belongs to China. But they did call its status into question. Below is an abridged version of their discussion of this issue, based on the Japanese version of their article that appeared on the People’s Daily website:

Japan’s placing of the Diaoyu Islands under the administration of Okinawa Prefecture is related to the War of Jiaowu (Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95) and to the Ryūkyū Disposition. Okinawa was originally the site of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. This kingdom was an independent state; it was a vassal state of China during the Ming and Qing dynasties, having from the start received the investiture of its rulers from the Ming emperors. Thereafter China continued to send investiture missions to Ryūkyū. Following the Meiji Restoration (1868), acts of aggression by Japan occurred against Korea, Ryūkyū, and China. The conquest of Taiwan progressed simultaneously with aggression against Ryūkyū. In 1875 the emperor of Japan ordered Ryūkyū to sever its vassal relationship with Qing China. In 1877 He Ruzhang, the minister of Qing China to Japan, noted, “[Japan] will not stop with the halting of tribute but will inevitably destroy Ryūkyū. And Ryūkyū’s fall will affect Korea.” In 1879 the Japanese government annexed the Ryūkyū Kingdom and renamed it “Okinawa Prefecture.” The Qing government protested, and Sino-Japanese negotiations were held concerning Ryūkyū. But in 1887, when the head of the Zongli Yamen (Chinese foreign office) raised the Ryūkyū issue with the Japanese ambassador, the Japanese paid no heed, and under the Maguan Treaty of 1895, Japan grabbed Taiwan and the islands belonging to it (including the Diaoyus), the Penghu Islands (Pescadores), and Ryūkyū. When China declared war on Japan in 1941, it abrogated the Maguan Treaty. Japan subsequently accepted the provisions of the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Declaration concerning its postwar treatment. Under these provisions, Taiwan and the islands belonging to it and the Penghu Islands reverted to China; not only that, but it may be time to revisit the unresolved historical issue of the Ryūkyū Islands. (Translated from excerpts of the article by Zhang Haipeng and Li Guoqiang as they appeared in Japanese translation on the website of the People’s Daily on May 9.)

To sum up, the two scholars’ claim goes like this: The Ryūkyū Kingdom was a vassal state of China during the Ming and Qing eras, and even after the “Ryūkyū Disposition” (establishment of Okinawa Prefecture), ownership of the Ryūkyū Islands continued to be an issue between Japan and China. The islands were “stolen” from China under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, but China abrogated that treaty in 1941. Under the postwar settlement conditions imposed by the Allies in the Cairo Declaration of 1943 and the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, which Japan accepted, China could assert its claim to the Ryūkyūs. And it is even clearer that the Senkakus belong to China.

The Potsdam Declaration stipulated that “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.” The “minor islands” include Okinawa, which therefore reverted from US administration to Japanese rule in 1972. The paper by Zhang and Li has nothing to say about this. Also, their point is grounded in the notion that China may, if it wishes, assert claims to the countries that were its vassals during the Ming and Qing dynasties. What does that mean for countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar (Burma), which paid tribute to China during those periods and received investiture of their rulers in return? And what of Korea, which as of the 1880s was China’s only remaining vassal state, with Yuan Shikai, the Chinese representative in Seoul, styling himself the “imperial resident” on the model of British imperial representatives in India and treating the country not as a tributary but as a “protectorate”? The Chinese seem to be using historical research selectively as a political tool.

Okinawans’ Negative Views of China

On the Internet some have argued that countries like Thailand and Vietnam are different from Okinawa in that they are already independent and that Okinawa should also be given its independence. In this connection it is instructive to look at the 2006 Okinawa prefectural governor election and the results of a survey conducted by the Okinawan prefectural government in November–December last year. Yara Chōsuke, the president of Ryūkyū Independence Party, ran for the governorship in 2006 and obtained 6,220 votes, 0.93 % of the votes cast in the election. The survey the Okinawan prefectural government conducted regarding Okinawans’ views of China and Taiwan is reported in the Okinawa Times on May 9: the total of those saying their impression of China was “favorable” or “somewhat favorable” came to just 9.1%, while those saying it was “unfavorable” or “somewhat unfavorable” accounted for a share of 89.0%. Regarding Taiwan, by contrast, 78.2% of the responses were positive and 19.2% negative. By way of comparison, a nationwide survey conducted in April–May 2012 by the Genron NPO found a total of 15.6% of respondents expressing positive or somewhat positive views of China, against 84.3% with negative or somewhat negative views.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 20, 2013.)

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Received his PhD in history from Cornell University. Is now president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and president of the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization. He was an executive member of the Cabinet Office's Council for Science and Technology Policy from January 2009 to January 2013. His works include Teikoku to sono genkai (Empire and Its Limits) and Beyond Japan: The Dynamics of East Asian Regionalism (coeditor). Former editor in chief and currently senior editor of Nippon.com.

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