Squarely Facing the Past: Japan’s War Guilt and the Need for Regional Tolerance

In a lecture at the Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Tokyo on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Japan to seek a peaceful resolution in redressing its poor relations with northeast Asian neighbours China and South Korea. At the centre of the cool ties is Japan’s perceived failure to properly atone for its aggression prior to, and during, WWII.

Squarely facing the past: Merkel at the Dachau concentration camp memorial in 2013
Squarely facing the past: Merkel at the Dachau concentration camp memorial in 2013

Merkel suggested that Germany could be used as a model for Japan having ‘squarely faced its past’ in a bid to regain credibility and prestige in western Europe. She was also quick to add, however, that the Germans were helped in their rehabilitation by the ‘tolerance’ of regional states, such as France, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis.

The issue of ‘war guilt’ remains problematic in Japan. There is no doubt that the population has a strong pacifist bent, having experienced the most destructive forces in the history of warfare when the USA dropped its atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. However, its neighbours are quick to identify the failure by prominent politicians in Tokyo to fully accept responsibility for the war in the Pacific and the atrocities that occurred after its inception.

In recent years, Japanese Prime Ministers (including incumbent Shinzo Abe) have downplayed the use of ‘comfort women’ by Imperial Army soldiers, the horrific human experimentation carried out by the notorious Unit 731, and the militaristic motives of embroiling a continent in war. Its leaders have also made a habit of visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the remains of several internationally-recognised war criminals.

Japan has in the past apologised for its use of comfort women during WWII. This has been undermined, however, by the denial of recent politicians  Source: NY Times
Japan has in the past apologised for its use of comfort women during WWII. This has been undermined, however, by the denial of recent politicians
Source: NY Times

Simultaneously, government departments and academics have pursued a revisionist line in history, perpetuated through school textbooks, which seems to deliberately underplay Japan’s wartime responsibilities. All these actions have understandably upset Japan’s neighbours – especially China and South Korea – whilst undermining Tokyo’s ambitions to become an active regional leader.

What must be acknowledged, however, is that Japan has made an official apology for the suffering that it caused during the Sino-Japanese War and WWII. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama released an official statement of apology that gained the unanimous approval of the cabinet. This remains the official position of the Japanese government.

Of course, inappropriate comments by politicians and questionable educational policy by the government do not suitably uphold Murayama’s apology. Yet it may be the case that this apparent reversal in stance with regard to Japan’s past actions has been driven by its neighbours’ refusal to show the tolerance Merkel admired in the French.

The Chinese, in particular, seize on any action or comment, however minor, as an example of Japan’s unrepentant stance towards its history. Any apology is not deemed to go far enough and almost any Japanese foreign policy move is interpreted as a sign that the country is regressing towards military nationalism. Whereas the Japanese have formed strong relations with the USA, another former adversary, they are barely on speaking terms with their major economic partners in northeast Asia. Indeed, were it not for this economic interdependence, the security situation in the region would be even more fragile.

Anti-Japanese protests are a fairly common occurrence in China, where they are happily tolerated by government officials
Anti-Japanese protests are a fairly common occurrence in China, where they are happily tolerated by government officials

Germany has risen to become the economic and diplomatic leader of Europe, playing a key role in all collective policy efforts. This despite a recent history comparable with Japan in which the Germans inflicted great misery on their neighbours, those very states with which they now enjoy sound relations.

Japan has the third-largest economy in the world and yet its diplomatic clout is puny in comparison. Rather than being able to wield a positive influence in northeast Asia, it is relegated to the position of bystander largely because of the reticence and mistrust of its neighbours.

It is unfair to expect the Japanese to have to reiterate their apologies over past atrocities or for them to have to feel a perpetual guilt due to the actions of their predecessors. Yes, crass comments by politicians are unhelpful, yet Japan’s neighbours are in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If Japan is continually seen as unapologetic over its past, and repeatedly made to look uncaring and arrogant on the world stage by Chinese and Korean protestations, more people (especially the youth) will follow an increasingly nationalist path. This, combined with political will, could lead to a revision of the Japanese constitution and the adoption of a far more assertive stance in the region, particularly over territorial issues. When this occurs, regional stability will be fatally undermined.

Angela Merkel was shrewd in her assessment. Squaring up to the past is critical in allowing a smooth progression into the future. Yet such self-reflection requires a reciprocal tolerance from regional states that accepts that the past is the past. At the moment, Japan’s neighbours are completely devoid of this admirable trait.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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