Seventieth Anniversary Statement

Interpreting Abe’s War Anniversary Statement

Politics

On August 14, 2015, Prime Minister Abe issued a statement on the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Three Nippon.com advisory board members who played key roles in drafting the report on which the statement was based discuss its significance, overseas reaction, and likely impact on East Asian relations.

Shiraishi Takashi

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.

Kawashima Shin

Editorial Planning Committee chair of Nippon.com and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo. 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), 21 seiki no Chūka: Shū Kinpei Chūgoku to Higashi Ajia (The Sinic World in the Twenty-First Century: Xi Jinping’s China and East Asia), and other works.

Hosoya Yuichi

Professor at Keiō University. Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1971. Graduated from Rikkyō University in 1994, where he majored in law. Completed his doctoral studies in politics in 2000, and received a PhD from Keiō University. Has also taught at Hokkaidō University and Sciences Po, Paris. Author of Sengo kokusai chitsujo to Igirisu gaikō (The Postwar International Order and British Diplomacy; winner of the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities), Gaikō: Tabunmei jidai no taiwa to kōshō (Diplomacy: Dialogue and Negotiations Across Civilizations), Rinriteki na sensō: Tonī Burea no eikō to zasetsu (Ethical Wars: The Glory and Failure of Tony Blair; winner of the Yomiuri Yoshino Sakuzō Prize), and other works. Member of the Nippon.com editorial committee.

A Well-Balanced Statement

INTERVIEWER

What were your immediate reactions to the seventieth anniversary statement issued by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō on August 14?

SHIRAISHI TAKASHI

I think it was good for three reasons. First of all, it was well balanced. The prime minister is both a realist and a nationalist, but the last we’ve seen of his nationalistic stripes was his visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. The statement confirmed the fact that he’s set on pursuing a more pragmatic course.

Secondly, the fact that the statement came from a conservative politician like Mr. Abe and that it was approved by the cabinet will work to prevent future statements—if there’s going to be one, say, on the eightieth or ninetieth anniversary—from swinging any further to the right. It will set the tone of public opinion for the foreseeable future.

The third reason is that it offers a clear, consistent vision, when considered alongside the National Security Strategy issued in December 2013, of Japan’s security policy going forward. The statement looks back on the path modern Japan has taken in Asia and the world, noting that it took the “wrong course” in the 1930s and 1940s but that the nation has since rejected its wartime past and that it will never deviate from the pacifist path. This is the kind of strategic vision that Japan has been seeking to spell out for three decades—since the days of the Nakasone Yasuhiro administration—and I’m glad it’s finally done.

Looking Ahead

KAWASHIMA SHIN

While most people focused on what the statement said about the war and the process that led up to it, I think it says a lot more about the seventy years of the postwar period and the kind of future the country should seek to build. The statement’s real significance lies in the fact that the prime minister provided historical context to the situation Japan finds itself in today, reaffirming the path it’s taken since its defeat and looking ahead to the course it should follow henceforth.

He emphasized Japan’s postwar pacifism and efforts toward reconciliation, noting that it now stands ready to make “proactive contributions to peace”—a reference, no doubt, to the security bills that are now being debated in the Diet.(*1) And he likely had the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] in mind in making a pledge that Japan will uphold a “free, fair, and open international economic system.” My impression was that he sought to explain the security and trade policies the administration is advancing by placing them in historical context.

At the same time, the statement had several surprises. I had expected the prime minister to reiterate the references to historical issues that he’s been making over the past year in his various speeches, mixing them with the recommendations of our panel and passages from past anniversary statements issued by Prime Ministers Murayama Tomiichi and Koizumi Jun’ichirō. But there were a number of distinctive new phrases and ideas, such as his reference to the significance of the Russo-Japanese War and the expression of a desire that our children and grandchildren not be predestined to apologize.

As for the reaction of other countries, from my perspective as a China specialist, I don’t see the statement as eliciting a vehement protest from Beijing. In our panel’s report to the prime minister, we quoted Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments praising aspects of the Murayama and Koizumi statements. Those parts were embraced in the Abe statement as well, and I think they’ll continue to be upheld in the future. In that sense, the basic tone of the latest statement is in line with those made by earlier administrations.

(*1) ^ An ad hoc advisory commission created by Prime Minister Abe to issue recommendations for the seventieth anniversary statement. The panel met six times, beginning in February 2015, and presented the prime minister with a final report on August 6.

(*1) ^ The roundtable was held on September 9, before the bills were passed into law on September 19.

A Broad National Consensus

HOSOYA YŪICHI

The historian E.H. Carr, in a famous quote, argued that history is “an unending dialogue between the past and present.” The Abe statement manifests this perfectly, intertwining past events with decisions being made by the administration today. He juxtaposes Japan’s actions before and during the war with the pacifist path taken after its defeat and commits Japan to never repeating the mistakes of the past. The terminology he uses sees history in the light of present-day realities, in the context of the prevailing global order and the confines within which Japan finds itself today.

Arguments between Japanese liberals and conservatives regarding perceptions of history have grown increasingly strident over the past two decades. Prime Minister Abe’s statement, I feel, was an attempt to bridge this ideological divide by incorporating elements from both camps. Here was Mr. Abe, perhaps Japan’s most conservative prime minister, embracing the remarks made by Mr. Murayama, who was the country’s most liberal prime minister who issued so-called Murayama statement. In that sense, it represents a very broad national consensus. If we compare it to the comments the prime minister was making a year or two ago, we can see how his perception of history has become much deeper and broader. I like to think that this was a result of his very meticulous reading of the advisory panel’s final report.

Presenters and Commentators at the Panel Meetings

INTERVIEWER

I understand that there was some disagreement among the panel members on the definition of “aggression.” Were the sessions marked by heated debate on other issues? How did the final report ultimately take shape?

SHIRAISHI

As a practical matter, there was only enough time for each panel member to a make a two- to three-minute comment per presentation. We met for just seven sessions, moreover, so there were considerable restrictions on the input each of us could make.

KAWASHIMA

I should point out that the final report, to a large degree, reflects the input from the presenters who were invited to each session, rather than the views of individual panel members. The main contributions the members made were to offer their comments, based on which the presentations were revised to form the gist of the recommendations. Those comments, naturally, were made from a very broad spectrum of viewpoints. Interestingly, detailed transcripts of our meetings were published right after each session, so there was considerable media coverage of the drafting process. The public reaction to those stories gave us an idea of what people were thinking.

The topics covered were fixed from the start, as were the presenters. We had one session on lessons from history, three on Japan’s postwar path, and one on our future vision. One could pretty much surmise the outline of the final report by the time the speakers, panel members (some of whom also made presentations), and the agenda items were set.

Shared Perceptions of History

INTERVIEWER

Can we take that to mean that the way in which the panel was structured had great bearing on the prime minister’s seventieth anniversary statement?

SHIRAISHI

The report was compiled by the panel, but the drafting of the statement itself was the job of the Prime Minister’s Office. The two are not the same. And this was the understanding with which panel members, including myself, agreed to take on this responsibility. At the same time, we were also aware that the prime minister was unlikely to issue a statement that clearly contradicted what we had recommended. So while we weren’t assigned to dictate what the prime minister would say, I think we nonetheless did have considerable sway over his remarks.

INTERVIEWER

Mr. Hosoya, you were a speaker at the fourth session. What was your impression of the mood of the panel and the discussions that followed your presentation?

HOSOYA

There were really no strong requests regarding what I should cover, and I was relatively free to discuss whatever I wanted on the topic I addressed. Many of the panel members were professional historians, and they already had shared perceptions regarding such issues as Japan’s aggressions and policy mistakes in the first half of the twentieth century.

That said, there was no telling how the Prime Minister Abe would ultimately choose to phrase the ideas contained the report. So I think that, especially in the initial stages, there was a lot of tension and uncertainty regarding how the recommendations would be incorporated into his remarks.

What surprised me about the statement was the amount of attention he gave to retracing the past. The emphasis of the panel’s report was on the process of postwar reconciliation, and so I had expected the prime minister to dwell at length on this topic. Another thing that he made clear was his intention to uphold the Murayama statement. He made specific references to the sufferings of the Chinese people and the unbearable sufferings of former POWs. My impression is that as he sat through the panel’s discussions, he came face to face with many new issues, made a point of personally investigating them, and came away with a broader and slightly revised understanding of this era in Japanese history.

Product of the Current Political Climate

SHIRAISHI

The media paid inordinate attention to certain phrases and kept a nervous eye on Chinese and South Korean reaction, but I think much of this was misplaced. I’d say that the main target of the prime minister’s address wasn’t our East Asian neighbors but the Japanese public. It was also addressed more broadly, to our US allies and other strategic partners.

In that sense, the statement should be viewed as rounding out a series of connected addresses, starting with his speech before the Australian parliament in 2014, the brief remarks he delivered at Bandung, Indonesia, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Asian African Conference, and his speech to the US Congress in May earlier this year.

KAWASHIMA

I couldn’t agree more. One unexpected development, though, was that the security bills took a great deal of time to pass, with the result that the anniversary statement had to be issued while the Diet was still in session. The prime minister’s approval rating declined in July, moreover, due to the popular backlash to the security bills. The statement was initially scheduled to be issued after the session closed, but it ended up being closely linked to activities in the Diet and trends in public opinion. As a result, the prime minister needed to be more accommodating, not the least to coalition partner Kōmeitō. I’m sure someone will one day put together a detailed account of the process by which the draft was finalized, why it turned out to be so long, and the kind of tug of war that must have taken place during the final week of July and the first two weeks of August.

HOSOYA

I think the fact that the Diet session was extended had great influence on the drafting of the statement. Another significant factor was that it was to be issued as a cabinet decision, meaning that coalition partner Kōmeitō had to agree to how it was worded. Without Kōmeitō’s endorsement, it could not be positioned as the collective opinion of all cabinet ministers. Perhaps also encouraging a softer tone were signs of a rapprochement in Japan-China relations since last year’s APEC economic leaders’ meeting. Neither Japan nor China wanted to kill the momentum that has slowly been building by reopening old, historical wounds. The September 3 war anniversary speech by Xi Jinping was not as harshly anti-Japanese as one might have expected. In that sense, I feel that historical perception and anniversary statements are the products of the current political climate. With the two countries looking for ways to improve their ties, efforts were made by both sides not to antagonize the other.

Mutual Efforts at Historical Reconciliation

SHIRAISHI

The panel’s discussion centered on the theme of reconciliation, rather than apology, and I think there was general consensus that this would be the thrust of the statement.

HOSOYA

In that sense, bilateral ties might be back to where they were when the 1998 Japan-China Joint Declaration was issued—a document reflecting the strong desire on both sides to improve their relationship. Recent trends indicate that such sentiments are being felt today as well.

In his statement, the prime minister talked about the importance of mutually making efforts at historical reconciliation, on the strength of which countries can come to enjoy amicable ties. He strongly alluded to the fact that such efforts have been made with the United States, Australia, and Britain and that this could also happen with China and South Korea. This, I believe, is the reason for his emphasis on reconciliation, and I think things are already heading in that direction with our neighbors.

KAWASHIMA

What the 1998 joint declaration in effect says is that Japan will continue to uphold the Murayama statement. And I’m sure you remember that the 1998 visit by President Jiang Zemin left the Japanese public cold.(*2) So while the declaration describes the bilateral relationship in glowing terms, there was no real outpouring of warm feelings. On April 12, 2007, though, in his speech to Japan’s Diet, Premier Wen Jiabao spoke positively about the efforts had made by Japan to resolve historical issues and about the Murayama and Koizumi statements. Unfortunately, Japan subsequently had a new prime minister almost every year, so it was unable to respond to this Chinese overture in an appropriate manner.

So I think it’s fair to say that both after 1998 and 2007, the two countries squandered opportunities to achieve reconciliation. As Mr. Hosoya pointed out, Xi Jinping’s September 3 speech, which came on the heels of the August 14 Abe statement, was restrained in its criticism of Japan and emphasized China’s pacifist record. Perhaps we’re finally seeing both governments trying to build on the message being sent by the other.

History as a Contemporary Issue

INTERVIEWER

That said, there is a real danger that tensions in East Asia could escalate; competing claims in the South China Sea, for instance, remain completely unresolved. What significance will the issue of historical perception and the Abe statement have in this context, especially with regard to Japan’s diplomatic options in the region?

SHIRAISHI

Whenever history is brought up as a political issue, you can generally assume that it’s really about contemporary concerns. During the Nakasone years, the prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine were viewed as being problematic from a constitutional perspective, but today Yasukuni is totally a foreign policy issue. What’s important is for government leaders, particularly the prime minister and members of his cabinet, to refrain from making careless remarks. We don’t want to repeat the mistake of having issued a carefully worded statement, only to later find our leaders acting and speaking in ways that contradict the sentiments expressed.

Chinese leaders regard diplomatic relations in a highly strategic manner, so they’ll seek to take the moral high ground whenever Japanese politicians make heedless remarks. But this is an option that the Chinese leadership is careful not to overuse, given the host of domestic issues with which Beijing must grapple.

On the other hand, Seoul has a much freer hand in using the moral card, and given the pervading domestic hostility toward Japan, it will probably continue to do so at every opportunity. South Korea is in the process of making some very important strategic choices. Its security needs can be met by maintaining good ties with the United States and China, while the key to its economic growth right now is exports to China. So it wants to avoid alienating China for both security and economic reasons in the face of US rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific and the momentum toward network-building among the region’s US allies. Its strategy appears to be to label Japan as an unrepentant villain and to secure both its national security and economic growth by skillfully managing its relations with the “Group of Two.” The only thing Japan can do is to maintain its cool under the circumstances.

(*2) ^ During his visit, the Chinese president criticized the teaching of history in Japan and demanded an apology from the Emperor and Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō regarding the two countries’ past.

Evolving International Relations

KAWASHIMA

We’re probably all aware that the international order is coming before an important crossroads, and everyone’s wondering how the US-Sino relationship is going to play out. China has announced its One Belt, One Road policy, under which it seeks to pave a path toward smoother ties with its neighbors, as well as with the Eurasian continent as a whole. Beijing is beginning to feel that its eastern borders, namely, the East and South China Seas and the western Pacific, are quite contentious, and that the dangers of escalating tensions with the Japan-US alliance are more trouble than they’re worth. This is probably the reason for focusing on its westward strategy, but we shouldn’t assume this will mean Beijing will pay less attention to the eastern front.

Washington is responding by rebalancing its security resources toward the Asia-Pacific, and it will no doubt ask Tokyo to pick up more of the security burden. Seoul is caught in the middle between Washington and Beijing, and it may soon have to make a choice. It’s playing a very tricky balancing game right now, and we’ll see if it can finesse its way forward.

The issue of historical perception goes to the heart of the Communist Party of China’s legitimacy, but as Mr. Shiraishi has pointed out, playing the history card too often can backfire. Should anti-Japanese protests, which are not prohibited by the authorities, flare up, they could turn into excuses for the masses to vent their frustrations with the party leadership. So Beijing is being cautious, criticizing Japan in international arenas but muffling such criticism domestically. This, I feel, was precisely what transpired on September 3.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivered a speech on August 15, the day after Abe issued his statement. I understand that she worked late into the night to revise her comments after the statement was announced. So efforts are being made by Seoul as well. All in all, the months of August and September were reasonably well managed by all three countries. There’s no telling what the future holds, but at least for now the countries demonstrated to the world that they were capable of preventing an escalation of tensions.

History as a Political Tool

KAWASHIMA

Regarding the prime minister’s desire that our children and grandchildren not be predestined to apologize, I hope the topic will be addressed by many more people in Japan. Germany, for instance, has taken the step of identifying various types of war crimes. The philosopher Karl Jaspers has noted that Germans born after the war cannot be held guilty of crimes committed during wartime. But he adds that the postwar generations do have a responsibility of sorts for achieving reconciliation.

There’s very little of that kind of analysis in Japan. And our East Asian neighbors have a tendency to push war responsibility on the Japanese people as a whole, seeing the present generation as being just as guilty as those fought the war. There’s no need to imitate what the Germans are doing, but I do think that as the years go on we should deal with the subject of Japan’s aggressions and war responsibilities from a more philosophical perspective—both in Japan and in other East Asian countries. Only then can we achieve a kind of common understanding about the past.

Interestingly, there are elements of the prime minister’s statement that I feel drew lessons from the German experience. His expression of “gratitude to all the nations and all the people who made every effort for reconciliation” echoes the sentiments that have been conveyed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I found the statement quite intriguing in that regard.

HOSOYA

I think you’re absolutely right in pointing out that the prime minister turned to the German model while drafting his statement. Chancellor Merkel visited Japan in March and made a speech that strongly emphasized the importance of the conciliatory gestures made by France and other neighboring countries.(*3) That was also a clear jab at Greece and other states with revisionist intentions.

In other words, she was pointing out that there are countries in Europe that sincerely seek reconciliation with Germany and others, like Greece, that use history—perhaps abuse it—in an effort to gain leverage over Germany to resolve contemporary issues. I think the chancellor took a very tough position on what the Greek administration was trying to do.

It’s important for both Germany and Japan to take a very honest look at the past, but it’s also crucial for international community to understand that history must not be used as a tool to solve modern political problems.

(Translated from a September 9, 2015, discussion in Japanese and edited by the Nippon.com editorial department. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe receives the final report of the advisory panel on the seventieth anniversary statement from panel chairman Nishimuro Taizō (center) president of Japan Post Holdings. At left is deputy chairman Kitaoka Shin’ichi, then president of the International University of Japan. © Jiji)

(*3) ^ In a speech during her visit, she stressed that France’s generosity was a key factor in enabling reconciliation between the two countries and in laying the foundations for peace and integration in Europe. While she made no direct reference to historical issues in East Asia, she suggested that efforts are needed on both sides to achieve reconciliation through apology and magnanimity.

United States China Abe Shinzō South Korea security legislation Abe statement historical perception Murayama statement war responsibility