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Abe's 70th anniversary statement: History and politics entangled

Abe's 70th anniversary statement: History and politics entangled
Published 13 Aug 2015 

Tomorrow Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make his long-awaited formal statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War.

It has been deliberately scheduled a day before the 15 August anniversary so as to not distract attention from the Emperor and Empress's customary appearance at a memorial service at the Budokan in Tokyo. While their imperial majesties would never venture to the neighbouring Yasukuni Shrine, and Abe himself will stay away, close attention will be paid on Saturday to which members of his Government visit the contentious shrine to honour Japan's war dead. 

The Prime Minister's statement should be a definitive statement of his Government's outlook. The Abe Government will reiterate its commitment to past key official statements of remorse and its long, peaceful post-war track record and commitment to regional peace and prosperity. But critics will look for signs of reticence in expressing atonement for Japan's wartime actions.

Abe's statement will be even more cautious in its formulation than he initially intended, as its finalisation has become entangled in the ongoing politics of his security legislation. The current Diet session has been extended until late September as the unpopular bills to reinterpret Article Nine of the peace constitution to permit SDF deployments for collective security ends remain before the upper house. Both the LDP's own political calculus, and the dictates of its coalition arrangement with the dovish Buddhist Komeito, mean that the bills will not be rushed into legislation.

As a consequence, Abe's 70th anniversary statement will come when the Diet is still sitting and Cabinet ministers can be grilled on their positions. Mindful of this, the Prime Minister and his advisors chose to submit the statement to Cabinet for its endorsement, effectively binding ministers to supporting it but requiring wider preliminary consultations. [fold]

Shinzo Abe apparently initially preferred to issue a personal statement, although its status coming from the current prime minister would have been ambiguous and contentious. Reports of Abe's inclination fed concerns that his apparent historical revisionist proclivities might result in a statement that backtracked on past official statements, setting back relations with China and South Korea. The 50th anniversary statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, and then the 60th one by Junichiro Koizumi, were both strong statements acknowledging Japan's past aggression and the great suffering it caused. They also had cabinet endorsement. Prime Minister Abe has, since last year, made clear that he knows how symbolically important the statement will be.

Yuriko Koike, who served as a minister in the Koizumi and first Abe governments and remains an LDP Diet member aligned with Abe, argues this week that it is time China and South Korea accept 'at face value Japan's sincere apologies'. She suggests that Japan has been misrepresented 'as an unrepentant country – or, worse, as one that is hell-bent on remilitarisation'. This sentiment 'is not lost on those in Japan who ask for how long their country will have to apologise.'

Her remarks fairly well encapsulate the outlook of conservatives. While conceding much of the historical truth of Japan's past aggression they resent the perceived politically instrumental use of that truth by both foreign governments and domestic left-wing critics. Those who question the sincerity of the Prime Minister in dealing with matters of war memory point to the fact that Abe, Koike and many in Abe's cabinet belong to the contentious nationalist organisation Nippon Kaigi. Yet during visits to Australia and the US, where history is not a subject of bilateral contention, Abe's expressions of regret for the wartime past have been forthright.

Perhaps to escape the political entanglements of his own right-wing associations, Abe commissioned an expert advisory group to inform the preparation of his anniversary statement. The final report of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan's Role and the World Order in the 21st Century reported on 6 August, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. It strongly endorsed the upholding of the Murayama statement and its frank admission of Japan's past aggression, although there were two dissenting voices amongst the sixteen members. The panel explored the reasons for Japan's effective reconciliation with some former enemies such as Australia and the need for redoubled efforts to achieve the same with China and South Korea.

The advisory panel's report was well received by the Japanese media and most commentators. Japan's leading conservative newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, has also reissued its own critical inquiry into the historical responsibility of Japan's political and military leaders for the Pacific war, which the newspaper undertook at the time of the 60th anniversary of the war's end.

Whilst many Japanese are doubtless tired of apparent attempts to delegitimate contemporary Japan by criticism of its past, there is little sympathy for provoking international discord on matters of history. The Abe Cabinet's political capital is also diminished by the current security bills, so political common sense suggests caution will prevail with the 70th anniversary statement.

Projecting Japan as a force for good in the world is at the forefront of the Prime Minister's mind now. On Wednesday it was announced that Abe is sending a letter via Vatican officials to Pope Francis outlining Japan's contributions to the international community as a peaceful nation. One Yomiuri commentator wondered if it might have a positive influence with South Korean Catholics. Perhaps even Shinto nationalists hope for miracles.

Photo by Flickr user Jose Luis Hernandez.

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