Why sorry is still the hardest word to say for Japan, 70 years after the second world war

Stephen Nagy considers Japan's need to cater to post-war domestic politics and its strategic positioning

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 5:00pm

On the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Asia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces the conundrum of recognising Japan's past while explaining its future in East Asia. This includes coming to terms with Japan's imperial past. Abe's nationalist and conservative credentials make him the ideal candidate to deliver both messages, which would strengthen Japan's regional reputation.

Besides, finally dealing with the historical demons of its past would also benefit Japan. This leads us to ask why he hesitates to engage in an act that would be positive for Japan and the region.

Abe does not have a monopoly in terms of not fully accounting for Japan's imperial past. To date, no sitting Japanese prime minister has visited prominent second world war memorials dedicated to the Nanking Massacre, comfort women or other war-related issues. It is unlikely that Abe will take up President Xi Jinping's offer to join the 70th anniversary commemoration events on September 3 in Beijing, either.

This selective historical amnesia is rooted in post-war political factions that were never comfortable with the narrative that Japan was an aggressor state and that its military behaviour, particularly in East Asia, was any different than other nations at war.

Conservative politicians like Abe receive considerable support from the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, an influential group that supports prime ministers and politicians visiting controversial sites of commemoration, such as the Yasukuni Shrine that honours senior military and political figures convicted of the most serious war crimes. Acknowledging wartime atrocities and accepting that the war conducted by imperial Japan was a war of aggression responsible for the death of tens of millions would be political suicide.

In short, domestic politics is tied to electing people who can mobilise conservative voters. As the "Prince of the Nationalists", as some commentators label him, Abe acts as a torch bearer for these views. Thus, as prime minister, Abe has wedded himself to political support groups that make it nearly impossible for him to acknowledge that past.

Furthermore, his track record delegitimises any attempt to convey remorse. Instead of appearing sincere, Abe's words and actions are seen as ideologically driven.

Abe's reticence in this respect complicates relations between Korea, China and Japan. That said, history - real, invented or constructed - is not the only factor deterring reconciliation in the region. Geopolitics and domestic politics within neighbouring countries also hamper relations.

For example, a divided Korean Peninsula, with the North and South using nationalistic rhetoric to consolidate their leadership and domestic politics, makes it unlikely that even a more progressive, shared view of history will improve relations between Japan and Korea. American military bases serve as a constant reminder that Koreans need to be vigilant defenders of their sovereignty. Perceived weakness on South Korea's part with regard to a softer and more conciliatory approach to Japan strengthens the North's nationalist credentials and thus its national security.

Reunification of the Korean Peninsula under Seoul's leadership would not necessarily be conducive to reconciliation, either. A unified, pro-US Korea would mean the loss of a buffer state against US influence for China. It is hard to imagine Beijing willing to tolerate anything but the status quo.

In this sense, there may be tacit recognition on Abe's part that soured relations in northeast Asia are a result of geopolitical competition and insecurities. In that line of thinking, Abe's speech to the US Congress may have omitted apologies and expressions of remorse to East Asia not just because it was the wrong venue, but also out of the understanding that history is being used as a strategic tool to weaken Japan, to maintain current divisions that act as a buffer against US influence.

This wariness is directed not only at American influence, either; a vibrant democratic, unified Korean Peninsula, especially one that has been able to reconcile with Japan, would not be a welcome neighbour.

The instrumentalisation of history, war guilt and public shaming of Japan have all significantly decreased sympathy for the Chinese arguments. According to the 2014 Genron poll of Japan-China relations, many Japanese feel that anti-Japanese education and selective historical teachings about Japan and the war have made and are making relations worse.

There is another catalyst that makes Japanese politicians and people in general much less sympathetic to China's interpretation of history, and less willing to apologise for past wrongdoings during the imperial period. As China continues to have double-digit military growth and engages in assertive behaviour in both the East and South China seas, such as unilaterally declaring an air defence identification zone, Japanese politicians, no matter how sincere and forthright about history, will find it increasing difficult to garner public support for further apologies to a state that is perceived as assertive, openly anti-Japanese and changing the status quo.

Stephen R. Nagy is an associate professor in the department of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo