SHARE >>>  
 anniversary of the end of the Second World War

2015 and the History Game

By Fraser Cameron

27 April 2015

It is impossible to escape history and this is especially true in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Nowhere has history poisoned the contemporary political atmosphere more than in East Asia where China and Korea have criticised Abe for failing to come to terms with Japanese aggression in the 1930s. On the Chinese side the emphasis is on the occupation of Manchuria and the ‘rape of Nanjing’ while the Koreans have tended to focus on the emotive issue of ‘comfort women’.  Abe will have several chances in coming weeks to deal with the history issue starting with this week’s visit to the US when he will be given the rare honour of speaking to a joint meeting of Congress. The major speech will be on 15 August, the anniversary of Hiroshima.

At the heart of the issue is whether Abe will apologise for Japan’s behaviour and not simply express ‘regret’ or ‘sincere condolences’ as he did in a recent speech in Australia. Abe has set up an advisory committee to help him prepare his remarks on history and find the right formulation. He has indicated that he does not want to retract the statement of former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama who did use the word apology. But it remains to be seen if Abe himself will use the word.

Abe has to tread a fine line. He has his own domestic constituency to consider, many of whom believe that Japan has apologised in the past and that should be the end of it. But Abe has also to assess the impact of his words on the US as well as various audiences in Asia, notably China and Korea. Washington is very concerned at the poor relations between Tokyo and Beijing and Seoul.  The White House is perplexed that its two most important allies in Asia barely talk to each other let alone sit down to discuss common threats.

A recent trilateral meeting of foreign ministers helped ease tensions and Abe and President Xi had an unexpected bilateral meeting in the margins of the Bandung anniversary conference in Jakarta last week. But these meetings will count for nothing unless Abe finds the right words to confront the history issue.

The history issue has tended to overshadow progress on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the US and Japan as the two most important countries in this new trade agreement. The deal between the US and Japan is almost complete but Abe is reluctant to announce this before President Obama receives fast-track authority from a bitterly divided Congress.