Responding to History: Considering Japan’s Options for Next Year’s War Anniversary

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2014.08.21] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

World War I as a Turning Point in Japan-China Relations

This year is the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, and we have put together a special series of articles to mark the occasion. The 1914–18 war was a milestone for Japan along its way to becoming a truly first-class power in East Asia. But some of the events of this period cast a long shadow on relations between Japan and China, notably the Twenty-One Demands that Japan pressed on the Chinese government in 1915 and the direct transfer of Germany’s concessions in Shandong to Japan under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It may be seen as a formative period for the anti-Japanese movement in China, as seen in boycotts of Japanese products and attacks on figures thought to be pro-Japanese, and for Chinese thinking about justice at the national level and about the use of violent means in the pursuit of this justice. In other words, World War I and its aftermath represented a turning point for the worse in Japan-China relations.

Some Japanese commentators suggest that Japan took a moderate line in its China policy during the 1920s in line with the agreements reached at the Washington Conference in 1922.  But Chinese historians take a different view. As they see it, Japan’s “moderation” was merely a matter of cooperation with the United States and Britain; meanwhile, Japan continued to aggressively expand its presence in China, focusing on the economic sphere.

Viewing history through the observance of anniversaries of past events is not an approach we should welcome, but it is common in East Asia these days, with the media and others reviving and reshaping memories by conducting various activities on the major anniversaries of historical milestones. And the views of history brought to the fore by these commemorative activities are having a substantial impact on current relations between Japan and its neighbors.

China and Korea: A Shared History of Fighting Japanese Aggression

Looking ahead to 2015, we can expect to have to deal with the effects of another anniversary, one with greater weight for us than the World War I centennial, namely, the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II and of the second Sino-Japanese War, which broke out as a full-scale conflict in 1937 following years of smaller-scale clashes. Next year will also be the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which normalized relations between Tokyo and Seoul. 

For the Chinese and Koreans, the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45, the Japanese occupation of parts of China, and Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 are all manifestations of the same phenomenon: Japanese aggression. (I might note that this sort of conflation of colonial rule and outright belligerency under a single rubric does not seem to be common in Europe.) The commonality between the Chinese and Korean views is probably reinforced by the fact that the current South Korean government considers Korea to have been among the victors in World War II, since the Korean government in exile based in Chongqing (Chungking) joined the war on the side of the Allied Powers.

When China’s President Xi Jinping visited South Korea last month (July 2014), he delivered an address at Seoul University in which he stressed that China and Korea shared a common history of having fought Japanese aggression. He was in effect calling for the two countries to join in a common fight against today’s Japan over perceptions of history. Meanwhile, China and Russia are planning to hold joint observances on September 3, 2015, to celebrate victory in the war against Japan. We can expect these harsh moves against Japan based on historical issues to lead to even more anti-Japanese rhetoric in the year to come.

Options for Japan’s Official Response

Some will probably suggest that this “history offensive” will have only a limited effect and that Japan should calmly ignore it. But in the battlefield of international public relations, silence is not generally golden. So what sort of response should Japan prepare for the verbal slings that are likely to fly during the upcoming anniversary year? In the private sector, organizations and individuals will have various options to choose from in terms of activities to conduct and messages to deliver. But the spotlight will probably be on the response from the government. So here I would like to consider some possible plans for this official reaction.

Plan 1 would be for the government just to reconfirm the positions it has expressed in the past. In response to questioning in the National Diet, in October 2013 Prime Minister Abe Shinzō confirmed that his administration would continue to adhere to the 1995 Murayama Statement apologizing for Japan’s past colonization and aggression, and in March this year he declared that the administration would not seek to revise the 1993 Kōno Statement concerning the “comfort women” issue.(*1) Repeated confirmation of these points is a minimum-level response, and though it lacks novelty, it may in fact be the most effective way of rebutting various criticisms.

Plan 2 would be to offer explanations of Japan’s position regarding points on which it faces criticism. Anti-Japanese rhetoric over the year to come is likely to involve not just issues like the friction with China over the Senkaku Islands and with South Korea over the comfort women but also the more general issues of the post–World War II international order, atrocities in wartime, and the alleged turn toward nationalism and militarism by Japan under the Abe administration.  

Some of the criticism directed against Japan may merit consideration, but misunderstandings and factual errors need to be corrected, and it is probably also a good idea to publicize postwar Japan’s efforts to promote peace and to seek reconciliation with past enemies. Of course it is not necessary for our country to speak with a single voice; we should accept diversity in the opinions expressed, while hoping for a certain degree of consistency. If we intend to respond in this way, we will also need to undertake detailed analysis of the critical comments from overseas sources.

A New Statement in 2015?

Plan 3 is for the Abe administration to come out with a new statement of its own on the occasion of the 2015 anniversary year. The key question would be whether such a statement would be based on a continued adherence to the statements issued under earlier administrations, as with plan 1 above, or would involve a certain amount of modification of the official position. In the former case, the administration might come up with some sort of observance to symbolize reconciliation between Japan and its former opponents. Though it could be difficult to get China and South Korea to participate, others, such as the United States, Australia, and Southeast Asian countries, might be willing to take part in such an observance, which could be planned with reference to similar undertakings in Europe and elsewhere.

Within Japan, many express doubts about the idea of pursuing reconciliation. And it is true that our country should not simply bow down in the face of foreign criticisms that are replete with misunderstandings and errors. But if we undertake reconciliation not in obeisance to criticisms by others but on our own initiative, we can hope to earn increased international respect and praise. And even though people in Japan may feel hesitant about following European models for such reconciliation, inasmuch as the eyes of the international community will be on us, we cannot reasonably ignore the European precedents for efforts of this sort.

If, on the other hand, the Abe administration decides to issue an anniversary statement that modifies the earlier pronouncements from the Japanese government, it will need to prepare thoroughly and seek to win the understanding of the United States and other allies by explaining its position to them in advance. It will also need to consider how to respond to domestic and international barbs. 

Among the other options for the seventieth-anniversary observances, one would be to look at the issues relating to war in modern times from the more lofty perspective of global history by implementing a joint research project or staging a symposium.

The ideas I have presented above are no more than examples. There are surely many other options, and perhaps a number of them could be combined. As I noted above, people are already looking ahead to next year’s seventieth anniversary. We need to discuss and decide whether and how Japan should observe this milestone. Here at we have been doing what we can to further this discussion by posting relevant articles as they become available, and we will continue to do so over the months to come.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 11, 2014.)

(*1) ^ The Murayama Statement, officially titled “Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama ‘On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end,’” <> was issued by Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi in August 1995, expressing remorse for the damage and suffering Japan caused through its colonial rule and aggression. The Kōno Statement, officially titled “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of ‘comfort women,’” <> was issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei in August 1993, expressing the Japanese government’s “sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

  • [2014.08.21]

Editor in chief of, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

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