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  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 7:05am

Shinzo Abe

Shinzo Abe is president of the Liberal Democratic Party and was elected prime minister of Japan in December 2012. He also served as prime minister in 2006 after being elected by a special session of Japan’s National Diet, but resigned after less than a year.

CommentInsight & Opinion

Abe's shrine visit a reminder of Japan's refusal to face wartime past

Andrew Leung says Japan's refusal to atone for its wartime atrocities remains the biggest obstacle to building relations with China and other victims, and Tokyo can learn much from Germany's courage in owning up to its own history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 6:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 9:59pm

On December 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that houses Japan's war dead, including some convicted war criminals. It was the first such visit by a sitting prime minister in seven years.

Junichiro Koizumi's visit in August 2006 greatly soured relations with Asian neighbours. This time, Abe's visit aroused immediate vitriolic reaction from China. Amid growing tension in the East and South China seas, his visit also drew expressions of regret and disappointment from the UN secretary general and Japan's ally, the United States.

Abe's move is consistent with his calculated right-wing politics. With control of both houses in the Diet, he is thought to be edging towards revision of Japan's anti-war constitution, possibly during a likely second term, given his current popularity with the Japanese public.

The rise of right-wing politics in Japan comes from growing public dissatisfaction with the country's "lost decades", during which its economic and geopolitical clout have declined vis-à-vis China. A sizeable proportion of the electorate were born after the second world war. More people now support the view that, after 68 years, Japan should now stand tall as a "normal" country, with its own military forces, unfettered by its wartime past.

While most Japanese are pacifist, Japan's military spending has expanded to 4.88 trillion yen (HK$360 billion), a level comparable to Britain and France, making Japan the world's fifth-largest military spender. Its shopping list for new military hardware is growing at a rapid rate. Yet the exact scope and details are likely to be shrouded under Japan's newly enacted secrecy law.

Notwithstanding Japan's increasing assertiveness, some in international circles believe China is overreacting. Weighed down by an albatross of "aggrieved nationalism", China is seen as still licking its wartime wounds while Germany and the rest of Europe have long since moved on.

There is, however, one huge distinction in how Germany strived to re-emerge as a "normal" country. Over many decades after the second world war, Germany spared no efforts in atoning for its war crimes, through repeated public remembrances, reparations and education of its young about German atrocities.

A 2003 MIT PhD dissertation, "Apologies and Threat Reduction in Post-war Europe", shows how Germany eventually won over the rest of Europe, particularly France, despite its wartime transgressions. Germany's repeated efforts, including settlement of territorial discords, took several decades.

In the mid-1960s, exhibitions at Neuengamme, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau showed "how the 'murderous system' of mass killing developed". In 1965, a large plaque naming concentration camps was installed in West Berlin. In 1970, chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees before the Warsaw Ghetto memorial. In 1977, chancellor Helmut Schmidt visited Auschwitz and made a contrite speech, followed by Helmut Kohl in November 1989. Absent real German atonement, the peace-promoting European Union project would not have come about.

In contrast, Japan has fallen far short in facing history. So far, it has not accepted any blame for forcing women into sexual slavery during the war. Instead of educating its young on the nation's mistakes, Japan chose to doctor its history textbooks.

Successive Japanese prime ministers have continued to pay homage at the Yasukuni Shrine. Despite Japan's efforts to portray these visits as a normal nation's respect for its war dead, think how provocative it would be to the world if Germany were to pay homage to a shrine honouring, say, Hitler.

Now, nationalism is rising in both Japan and China. A stronger China with deep wartime scars and long memories of foreign humiliation naturally finds Japan's haughtiness difficult to stomach. So would an economically self-assured South Korea. This perceived provocation is adding incendiary tension over island disputes in regional seas, complicated by America's defence treaty with Japan and its "pivot" to Asia.

Abe is working to restore Japan's economy to its former dynamism, but it is uncertain whether he would be able to let fly all his "three arrows" of Abenomics - monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and growth strategy - or if they would hit the target. With its population fast ageing, it is questionable whether Abe, with all his abilities, will be able to turn the economic tide.

During the first year of his second premiership, Abe has visited more than 20 countries, including the US, France and all 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He has not missed any opportunity during these visits to advance ostensibly China-containment policies. These are accompanied by generous financial assistance packages, including multimillion-dollar loans to Myanmar, where China's influence appears to be diminishing.

Despite Abe's efforts, however, Asean countries are largely hedging their bets, perhaps with the exception of the Philippines and Vietnam. After all, China, the world's second-largest economy, remains the hub of a regional production and supply chain.

This economic interdependence is underscored by the establishment of the Asean-China Free Trade Area.

Abe's latest shrine visit reminds China, South Korea and other war victims of Japan's lack of repentance for its wartime past. For all of Abe's "arrows" and diplomacy, and Japan's military prowess, the country is unlikely to earn the highest level of international respect and rapport unless it is able to muster Germany's courage and conviction to truly, unequivocally and courageously own up to its history.

If so, this should help build a credible spirit of atonement, trust and co-operation with its war victims, particularly China and South Korea. This will reduce the tension threatening regional stability.

What is more, this should enhance the chances of the Land of the Rising Sun regaining its moral, if not economic, leadership.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong

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This article is now closed to comments

rpasea
Let's also raise the issue of China's leadership still paying respects to the m u r d e r i n g thug Mao.
ngsw
Every time Japan's wartime atrocity is addressed, some people will come up to push the focus of attention to Mao and says: "Hey, Mao's kettle is blacker. Don't look at Japan's pot."
scmpbeijing1
Could we not also say that the CPC leaderships homage to Mao this past week is also a reminder of the Communist regime's failure and refusal to face it's horrible past that saw some 30 million Chinese starve to death, and countless other lives ruined? I don't get the anger over Abe among Chinese, who refuse to consider the blood Mao has on his hands.
rova.nerk
The brave japanese army can not apologise for its barbaric murders of ww2, in my book it is gutless.
whymak
Desodromic:
You're talking nonsense!
I appreciate my Japanese friendships, especially those developed years ago in the academic community. Even more than the Chinese, they believe in harmonious inter-personal relationships. I disapprove any hate Japanese sentiments expressed by readers in this publication.
Friendships demand the respect for one another's sensitivities. While aware of past Japanese atrocities, we cannot hold the present Japanese generation responsible. In our conversations, subjects of Japanese atrocities are assiduously avoided. Instead, we share the Confucian aspects of our cultures, which are expressed through language, paintings, calligraphy and martial arts.
The patience and discipline of Japanese should be good lessons for HKers, who in contrast demonstrate and holler obscenities at the drop a hat. By now Japan has experienced almost 1 1/2 decades of economic stagnation. In the West, that's a cause for armed revolution. Yet this good Japanese people have nobly persevered.
However, electing right wing militarists who attempt to rewrite history is as close as one gets to moral turpitude - collectively approve genocides as justifiable acts of national defense.
In your ignorance, you also seem to suggest that territories stolen during Japanese foreign wars of occupation since Meiji Restoration up to the WW2 are the well deserved loot for murderous finders-keepers.
This lowly Chinaman cannot swallow this Western distortion.
Desmodromic
I feel the need to make a few corrections to a grossly misleading article.
I am not Japanese, Chinese and not a fan of Abe san.
1) It would be nice to present data in a more informative way. Does Japan spend as much on defense as Britain or France? Yes. How about mentioning that Japan's economy is as big as France's and Britain's combined. Japan spends 1% of its GDP on defense (US 4.4%, China 2%). As percentage of GDP, Japan's defense spending ranks117th in the world, behind New Zealand and Seychelles. Too much for a country that has experienced North Korean kidnappings and other forms of terrorism, often by sea? And regular viuolations of its territorial waters by China?
2) Apologies for WW2. Uncountable ones. Perhaps you can find one of your liking here: ****en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_war_apology_statements_issued_by_Japan
This list has 49. Even my lovely grandma would get annoyed at being asked to apologize for the 50th time.
3) By the way Yasukuni shrine pre-dates WW2 by almost 100 years.
whymak
Reader clc2:
For your information, Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, who ordered and presided over the Nanjing massacre of 300,000 civilians, was protected by American occupational forces from being tried as a war criminal.
Are SCMP imbecile readers listening? They must have enjoyed countless pictures of men beheaded, pregnant women and babies bayoneted.
As a matter of fact, these facts were admitted by Japanese combatants. They competed among themselves how many Chinese civilian heads they lopped off in one day. SCMP readers defending such behavior have no right to live in our civilized society.
Of course, victors run their courts and tribunals and they protect their war criminals by "rule of law" from prosecution. They carve out territories and use them as geopolitical devices for divide and conquer.
However, the ascension of China is now challenging this cozy status quo.
It is about justice, not nationalism. Should we be surprised by the feel-good hate passions of some SCMP scumbags?
clc2
There's one guy by the name of Akihito who can knock to Hell all the Yasukuni Shrine controversy by stating his opinion to effect that the convicted war criminals should be yanked, if he so chooses.
So far, he has kept his mouth firmly shut.
whymak
DOUBLE ENTRY ACCOUNTING
For China bashing ill wishers, please read my account below on 30 million deaths from Great Leap Forward, it's all about the improper use of double entry accounting.
For developing countries and large business enterprises, the same thing often happens in aggregating GDP items - by expenditure and value added - and in fixing transfer prices for a product (inventory) made by 2 or more companies within an enterprise. For the latter, it is usually about tax leverage - tax differentials among different countries -- and for competitive pricing purposes.
For example, Li Ka Shing might have priced rental costs too low in his supermarket business in order to establish a high barrier to entry and to achieve the present oligopoly. The cost of grocery business and the profit on the real estate business side are both understated.
Perhaps with the rise of rentals, Park N Shop is still not achieving a satisfactory return on invested capital for the conglomerate. That may be one of the reasons for the planned divestiture.
By repeating the same lie one million times, scumbags hope to make it a fact.
lui.thw@gmail.com
This article is written from a Hong Kong prospective, and Mao has nothing to do with Hong Kong.

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