Is Japan Drifting Toward Isolation?


Golden Age” of Reconciliation

Almost a decade ago, Newsweek International featured a story titled “A Very Lonely Japan,” and the cover of the magazine provocatively proclaimed that the issue would explain “Why Japan Has No Friends.” Although somewhat over-generalizing, the article did have a point regarding Japan’s growing diplomatic isolation as a result of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which were depicted on the cover of the Newsweek issue in question. Due to these visits, the “golden days of reconciliation” in East Asia abruptly came to an end in the early 2000s. In subsequent years, summit meetings between Japanese and South Korean or Chinese leaders were held only infrequently, and the processes of regional integration ceased to make progress.

During the 1990s, a number of Japanese apologies for the Asia-Pacific War (1931–45) and for war crimes helped generate a climate of mutual trust in East Asia. Japan’s rapprochement with China and South Korea gathered momentum as a result of measures that included the introduction of the so-called neighboring nations clause in 1982, guaranteeing that Japanese history textbooks would take into account the feelings of the victims of Japan's aggressive wars and colonial rule; the apologies for Japan’s “wars of aggression” by Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro in 1993; the Kōno Declaration concerning the issue of the “comfort women” in the Japanese wartime army in the same year; the Murayama Declaration in 1995; and the creation of the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) for the compensation of former comfort women. I call this era the “golden age of reconciliation” in East Asia.

Rapprochement and Regional Integration

In 1998, Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō and South Korean president Kim Dae-jung signed the “Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration: A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership Towards the Twenty-first Century.” In the statement, Kim and Obuchi pledged to share “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.”

The declaration includes a repetition of Japan’s apology for war and colonial rule as laid out in the 1995 Murayama Declaration. In the same year, Japan and China also signed a “Joint Declaration on Building a Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation for Peace and Development.” In 1999, the idea of a trilateral summit between China, Japan, and South Korea also emerged, but it could not be realized before 2008 due to the growing frictions after Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine—although meetings on the sideline of ASEAN meetings were held continuously from 1999 to 2007.

Rising Tensions

Prime Minister Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine knowing well that it glorifies the Asia-Pacific War and claims that Japan's wars were not wars of aggression, but wars of self-defense and wars to liberate Asia from European colonial rule. This view is presented clearly in the shrine’s museum, the Yūshūkan.

While these views, needless to say, are particularly provocative in the eyes of the victims of Japanese warfare and colonial rule, Koizumi’s decision to visit the shrine was also logically flawed. On the one hand, he stated that he upholds the Murayama Declaration of 1995, Japan’s most important apology for the wars of aggression in the 1930s and early 1940s, but he decided to visit the shrine notwithstanding the fact that it upholds an historical interpretation that stands in complete contradiction to the Murayama Declaration.

Koizumi also never bothered to explain why he went to a place with such a provocative historical view rather than simply paying respect to the war dead at Japan’s “National Cemetery” in Chidorigafuchi, which was recently visited by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; or other less controversial sites dedicated to remembrance and mourning.

Toward Isolation?

In late December 2013, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō also visited Yasukuni Shrine—the first Japanese Prime Minister in office to do so since Koizumi. He also has initiated steps to render the above-mentioned neighboring nations clause—a major tool in postwar Japan’s reconciliation policies—hollow and meaningless. And he plans to scrap Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which is a symbol of Japan’s departure from the prewar system of militarism. More than a mere “domestic issue,” Article 9 plays a highly significant role as a message to Japan’s neighbors that Japan is not to be feared anymore. Retracting this reconciliatory message must surely evoke odd feelings.

Korean and Chinese media have been traditionally critical of Japanese attempts to whitewash the past, but European countries and the United States also voiced unusual strong concern about Abe’s history politics.

The US government, in a rare move of disapproval, called Abe's visit “disappointing.” The New York Times in several editorials since late 2012 has strongly criticized Abe’s history-related policies as a “shameful impulse.” Even the conservative Heritage Foundation recommended the need to “privately counsel Abe” not to increase tensions in East Asia by further provocative steps with regard to Japan’s wartime history. (*1)

Also in Germany, a very close friend of Japan, the media has identified Abe’s view of history as a threat to stability in the region. In an article titled “Japan's Regional Isolation Higher than Ever,” the international radio and TV broadcaster Deutsche Welle warns of a deepening isolation of Japan, particularly in East Asia. Ironically, as the article points out, Prime Minister’s Abe successes in “getting things done” will “likely provoke further antagonism” in the region.

In order to preserve peace and stability in East Asia for future generations, it is absolutely necessary to escape from this vicious cycle caused by differing interpretations of history and to launch a new “golden age of reconciliation” in East Asia.

(Originally written in English on January 9, 2014.)

(*1) ^ Bruce Klingner, “U.S. Should Use Japanese Political Change to Advance the Alliance,” (Backgrounder 2743, November 14, 2012).

Japan politics history Germany Saaler Sven Koizumi war Yasukuni