Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is on a roll. His coalition won last month’s elections for the upper house of the Diet, polls show that his plan for economic recovery is widely accepted and his approval rating among the electorate is 65 percent.
However, the prime minister will most likely fail to achieve his ambitions in foreign policy and national security unless he finds a way to resolve what is known as “the history question.”
The demons of history prevent Japan from taking its rightful place among the world’s foremost nations.
This is a vital question not only for Japan, but also for the US and its allies in Asia. In particular, bitter relations between Japan and South Korea, rooted in history, but now both treaty allies of the US, undermine the security of all three.
The litany of charges against Japan centers on the period from 1931 to 1945. Japan occupied Taiwan (from 1895), Korea (from 1910) and Manchuria (from 1931). It invaded Southeast Asia, committed wartime atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking in China and exploited “comfort women” for sexual services for soldiers.
Japanese leaders have apologized more than 50 times beginning in 1945 with former Japanese emperor Hirohito apologizing to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied Occupation, and in 1951 then-Japanese prime minister Shigeru Yoshida in addressing the San Francisco Peace Conference.
The Chinese and South Koreans have refused to acknowledge those apologies for their own reasons. Some of their refusal is because of the genuine anger of the victims. For others, it is a convenient club with which to attack Japan or it is a distraction from pressing issues at home.
Moreover, they have not said what they want, nor what would satisfy them. A recent article from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, was typically vague: “Only by facing up to history and seriously reflecting on its wartime crimes can Japan win back trust among people in Asia and across the world.”
International politics may not be fair, but this is the reality that Abe and his colleagues must address if they want to drive the demons of history back into the pages of social studies textbooks.
Here are three suggestions for a compelling and vivid Japanese endeavor to resolve this issue:
First, have a researcher in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs comb through the accounts of Japanese apologies since 1945 and compile them, in context, into an authoritative record of remorse. Have that record translated from Japanese into Chinese, Korean and English, and published for the world to see.
Second, ask Japanese Emperor Akihito to rise in the Budokan (Hall of Martial Arts) at the annual gathering of Japanese leaders to mark the end of World War II, and deliver the final expression of remorse. Only the emperor has the moral and constitutional authority to speak for all of Japan.
Third, quietly negotiate with the Chinese and South Korean governments to determine what apologies they would accept.
Japan should include in the record of remorse and in the Emperor’s address a declaration that their apologies are done.
Japan could eliminate a lightning rod for Chinese and Korean criticism by moving the spirits of 14 war criminals from the Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine, not a cemetery, for the spirits of Japan’s war dead, similar to the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore, India Gate in New Delhi and the Vietnam Wall in Washington.
This month is the anniversary of the end of World War II. This year, Abe could start resolving the history question. In August of next year, Japan could declare the issue settled. And in August of 2015, Abe might look back on a great accomplishment.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.