Shinzo Abe

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