Originally Published 2015-05-18 00:00:00 Published on May 18, 2015
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War-II. This day should have been used to reflect on the pain inflicted by the war. Unfortunately, this anniversary appears to be degenerating into a political battle, that could have a critical impact on Japan's diplomacy and reputation, especially in Asia.
World War-II mistakes: What should Abe do?

On August 15, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender of his country in the World War II, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. As any anniversary marking the end of a war, this day should be used to reflect on the terrible pain inflicted by the war in the past, and give hope to shape a better, more peaceful future. Unfortunately, this anniversary appears to be degenerating into a political battle, that could have a critical impact on Japan's diplomacy and reputation, especially in Asia.

Since the beginning of the year, much of the attention on Japan has been focussed on the content of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's projected statement on the Japanese Government's views of the war. This statement is already under close scrutiny by Asian nations — especially China and South Korea, which bore the brunt of Japan's military excesses in the pre-war years. Both China and South Korea widely view Abe as a revisionist. As Abe crafts his statement, one question that comes to the forefront of debate is whether he will reiterate the crucial aspects of the statements issued by previous Japanese leaders, and if he chooses not to, why?

Most recently, in April 2015, Abe had stated that he did not feel it necessary to repeat the wordings of apology for Japan's wartime actions since he had already decided to uphold the statements issued by previous Prime Ministers. In what was seen as a prelude to his upcoming statement, Abe's April address to a summit of Asian and African leaders in Jakarta expressed Japan's "deep remorse" over the war, but did not offer a "heartfelt apology" to the people of Asian nations affected by Japan's "colonial rule and aggression" during and before the war.

In his joint address to the US congress in April, Abe, despite expressing his "deep remorse", once again withheld from using the term "apology" much to the dismay of many US lawmakers who have called upon Abe to reaffirm and validate previous Japanese war apologies. Instead, Abe firmly emphasized "Japan's new banner" that is "proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation."

By these actions, Abe risks losing the confidence of the international community that previous Japanese leaders managed to secure. The 1993 Kono Statement, alongside statements issued by Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi in 1995 and Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro in 2005, were important due to the fact that they contained the terms "heartfelt apology" and "colonial rule and aggression." These statements have played a crucial role internationally on Japan's ability to accept its war time history.

While many experts argue that these are sufficiently conciliatory, for numerous reasons they do not resonate well with China, South Korea, and many in the international community. The inability of Japanese right wing nationalists in accepting Japan's war time atrocities; in addition to visits made by Japanese leaders such as Koizumi, and Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine (a shrine in Tokyo that houses the remains of Class - A wartime criminals); and incidents such as the 'textbook controversy,' which have been prevalent since 1982, all set the tone for doubting the sincerity of these conciliatory gestures.

Internationally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her visit to Tokyo in March 2015, also urged Japan to properly address its wartime conduct. Further, a group of 187 scholars of Japanese and East Asian studies, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower, and Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus of history at Harvard University, have called on Japan to accurately address its history of colonial rule and wartime actions, particularly the "comfort women" who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.

Domestically also, there is considerable pressure on Abe, some of it coming from within his Liberal Democratic Party as well. Alongside Murayama, the ex Prime Minister of Japan, the LDP Vice President, Komura Masahiko, has urged Abe to uphold past government apologies and expressions of remorse for Japan's war time aggression in Asia. Kono Yohei, the former cabinet secretary in charge of releasing the 1993 Kono statement, also echoed the same sentiment. He stressed that Japan's historical perspective could not have changed in the last 10 years, and thus the wording to be used in the statement should be clear.

Earlier this year, Abe set up a 16-member panel of scholars, business leaders and other experts to aid in advising him on the content of his statement. However, this panel which is set to report to him by this summer will serve only as a "reference" for the government as it drafts Abe's statement. Within this panel itself, there are contrasting views of what this statement should entail. Kitaoka Shinichi, a prominent Japanese Scholar, and advisory member of the panel, stated that he wanted Abe to acknowledge that Japan had indeed committed aggression. On the other hand, some members of the panel have stated that a change of wording between the 50th and 70th anniversary statements would be natural.

Thus, it can be established that the arguments surrounding Abe's statement are two-fold - one being that Abe should apologize and uphold the statements made by his predecessors, while the second being that Abe should take a more future oriented approach, that would involve a change in terminology. Yet, why can't Abe do both, keeping the apology intact?

As for any nation crafting a reconciliatory narrative, it is not easy. However, in order to have a successful future, one must be able to accept and right the wrongs done in the past. Changing the language of the apology would be misconstrued as everything that was said in the past was a lie. So, it is better Abe makes a sincere and unambiguous apology, and adhere to the expressions that have been made by previous prime ministers. Showing contrition, while looking to the future, and letting the world know that Japan wants to pro-actively contribute is a sure sign of progress. This could well be a stepping stone in improved Japanese diplomatic relations in North East Asia.

(Vindu Mai Chotani is a Research Assistant and Prof. K V Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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