Meeting Japanese Remorse with Chinese Acceptance

Politics Society

Chinese commentator Ma Licheng considers the various factors that shaped Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s statement marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II and calls for China to be more open-minded in its response to Abe’s words.

The statement that Prime Minister Abe Shinzō issued on August 14, 2015, the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, was a product of compromise in the face of intense pressure from many interested parties, both domestic and international.

Domestic Pressures on the Prime Minister

Within Japan, members of conservative groups like the Association of Diet Members for Worshiping at Yasukuni Shrine Together, who bring in large numbers of votes at election time, opposed inclusion of the words “aggression” and “colonial rule” in the statement. So did some hard-line senior government officials. Conservative forces form Abe’s support base, and he shares their sentiments; furthermore, from an electoral standpoint he cannot ignore them.

On the other hand, intellectuals, business executives, and politicians hoping for improved Sino-Japanese relations made a series of vigorous drives and kept up their pressure on Abe, calling on him to show a correct understanding of history.

Caught between these two camps, Abe could not make up his mind. For quite some time, the information coming out of Tokyo on whether the statement would ultimately acknowledge Japan’s “aggression” or not was extremely mixed, leading to much conjecture and tension.

One factor played an extremely important role in applying latent pressure on the prime minister during the process leading up to his final decision on the contents of the statement: Emperor Akihito made several addresses this year reflecting on Japanese history and expressing deep remorse. This forced Abe to adjust his own position. The dispute over security legislation that sent the prime minister’s approval rate tumbling also made him seek to regain support by breaking the deadlock in Sino-Japanese relations.

International Influences

Outside of Japan, Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia—all of which suffered invasion by Japanese forces during World War II—were understanding and did not apply pressure on the prime minister.

China, however, which is now competing with Japan for the leading role in Asia, was vehemently critical of its island neighbor and made clear demands regarding the content of the statement. In mid-July, Yachi Shōtarō , Abe’s national security advisor and former vice-minister for foreign affairs, visited China. Described as the “Japanese Kissinger,” Yachi insists on the need for Japan to show strategic patience in its relations with China. Through him, China presented three demands to Abe: that he should maintain the position given in the four “basic documents” between the two countries,(*1) uphold the statement made by Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, and not visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Meanwhile, South Korea has been rapidly moving closer to China, whose relations with North Korea continue to be chilly. The government in Seoul, seeking to maintain its friendly ties with Beijing while countering Pyongyang and mollifying domestic nationalists, strongly demanded that Abe properly address Japan’s history.

Another important factor was the pressure on the prime minister from the United States, which is concerned about stability and the balance of power in the region. The Americans pushed for him to face up squarely to the historical record and reduce tensions between Japan and its East Asian neighbors.

The prime minister’s statement was certainly revised repeatedly and completed under these complex circumstances. As Abe wants to remain in office, he had to bear in mind the various domestic and international demands directed at him. This is why his statement became the cause of such debate. Naturally, his personal values also played a part in shaping the contents.

Developments in Sino-Japanese Relations

Contrary to many people’s expectations, Abe did finally include keywords like “aggression,” “colonial rule,” and “apology” in his August 14 statement. Compared with his previous claim that the word “aggression” has no established definition, this was a major step forward. The statement played a positive role in pulling Sino-Japanese ties out of their stalled state and laying the groundwork for a third meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the fact that it included the various keywords should be acknowledged.

It is true that the statement was indirect in some of its phrasing. For example, the word “aggression” appeared in the sentence, “Incident, aggression, war—we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

This is quite different from the frank and direct way Prime Minister Murayama of the Japan Socialist Party used the word “aggression” in his 1995 statement to refer to past Japanese actions. In this respect, the criticism by many Chinese that Abe was being evasive is a reasonable one.

Yet Sino-Japanese relations are now very different from what they were in 1995. At that time, China’s economy lagged far behind Japan’s, but today it is twice the size of the Japanese economy, and Japan’s former confidence has been hugely shaken. Recently I have visited Japan several times, and as it now directly faces Chinese pressure and resentment, I sense that Japanese society as a whole is under great strain. And I can understand how the flaring up of anti-Japanese sentiment in China has been creating fear and wariness in Japan. This happens whenever any issue relating to China comes up these days.

A range of factors have contributed to this state of affairs. The Liberal Democratic Party, which has held power for most of the postwar period in Japan, has been consistently conservative, with an approach to historical perceptions falling far short of that taken by the JSP (now the Social Democratic Party). And the United States is continuing to press Japan to support its containment of China; the Japanese, feeling unable to trust their Chinese neighbors, cannot ignore the entreaties of their American allies.

Abe’s approach to China contains two opposing elements: promoting reconciliation and maintaining a degree of wariness. But in the context of the current Sino-Japanese relationship, this is nothing to take issue with. The same elements are seen in the ties between China and the United States. Sino-Russian relations also seem to incorporate an element of defensiveness. Historically speaking, as well, Japan behaved similarly when dealing with China in the days of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping, who themselves also followed this approach.

China should be open-minded toward the Abe statement. Some Chinese have described Abe as a “crook” or said that his statement is useless in improving bilateral relations, but these judgments are too harsh.

The Need to Examine Chinese History

I personally believe that China should show constant goodwill toward Japan. The negative reactions noted above derive from a lack of confidence. China should display the same magnanimity appropriate to a major power that it did during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and the Tang Dynasty (618–907). There is nothing to be gained from narrow-mindedness.

We should acknowledge the positive steps that Abe has taken. One Chinese academic appeared on television on the evening of August 14, after the statement was made, and noted its positive role. The following day, however, he thoroughly denounced it. It makes one speculate that he became frightened when he saw how other people were hurling abuse at Abe’s words and quickly reversed his earlier position. This is not an appropriate attitude for a scholar, who should seek after truth.

How should we Chinese regard our own history? Do we really face up to it directly? For example, many people died of starvation in the Great Chinese Famine (1959–61), but who apologized for this tragedy? How should we study the violence and persecution of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76)? These are questions that demand careful consideration, and we cannot ignore them when we think and talk about China’s soft power. Only by confronting these issues of our own can we win respect and create an atmosphere conducive to apologies from others.

(Originally written in Chinese and published on August 24, 2015. Banner photo: The author speaking at the Japan National Press Club in June 2015.)

(*1) ^ The 1972 Joint Communiqué of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People's Republic of China, the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People's Republic of China, the 1998 Japan-China Joint Declaration on Building a Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation for Peace and Development, and the 2008 Joint Statement between the Government of Japan and the Government of the People's Republic of China on Comprehensive Promotion of a “Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests.”—Ed.

Japan China South Korea Xi Jinping reconciliation foreign relations Abe statement