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History and Politics

History and Politics

By Fraser Cameron

27 August 2015

History as a political card



History and politics are more intertwined in East Asia than anywhere else in the world and rarely has a statement been more anticipated and digested than that by Japan’s Prime Minister Abe on 14 August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Would he apologise for Japan’s aggression in Korea, China and elsewhere in Asia during the 1930s and 40s? Would he tackle the sensitive issue of the comfort women? How would Korea and China react to the statement? And what would be the political consequences?

Abe had set up a history panel to advise him on the statement which had to take into account domestic and foreign opinion, especially the views and expectations of China and Korea. Inevitably reactions were mixed. Washington welcomed the statement while Beijing and Seoul pointed to the glass being half empty rather than half full. President Park said the statement left much to be desired.

Tensions over nationalism and identity in East Asia are closely inter-twined with domestic and foreign politics. The ruling Chinese communist party uses history to justify its leading role.  There are regular outbursts of anti-Japanese sentiments, but these do not always accord with Chinese economic and diplomatic interests. Indeed President Xi, as well as Abe and President Park, seem ready to consider the prospects for a bilateral and/or trilateral summit meeting to try and improve relations between the three major powers in East Asia.


Japan’s role in the 1930s and 40s remains hotly disputed in Japan and throughout Asia. The nationalists in Japan argue that Japan was under threat from Western powers and its military actions in Asia were motivated by anti-imperialist sentiment. Others accept that Japan was responsible for starting the war but argue over the words Tokyo should use to apologise for its actions. Abe’s statement mentioned the four key words (aggression, colonization, remorse and apology) that China and Korea had demanded – but not in the context most people would consider appropriate. There was no direct reference to comfort women, an issue that is highly sensitive in Korea, and which is disputed in Japan.

Beijing argues that Japanese aggression towards China in the 1930s must never be forgotten. Seoul emphasises the brutal Japanese rule of the Korean peninsula and the forced use of ‘comfort women’ by the military. President Park has been most critical of the Abe government for appearing to doubt the facts of the comfort women and has made a positive Japanese response on this issue as a sine qua non for improved relations with Tokyo.

According to polls, most Japanese think the government has apologised enough and have negative views about Korea – a view reciprocated by Koreans. Washington, a key ally of both countries, has been pressing both sides to resolve their differences and seek to work closer together in tackling the main security threats in the region.

The Abe statement tried to paint a more honourable narrative of Japan's wartime actions and to assure future generations of Japanese that they need not apologize for what took place in the past.  He stated that in the 1930s ‘Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war’ during which the country ‘inflicted immeasurable damage and suffering on innocent people.’ He pledged that Japan would never again resort to the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. There was, however, no specific mention of ‘comfort women’ although he did talk of making Japan a leader for women's human rights.  

The following day the Japanese emperor issued a statement that was more apologetic than that of Abe. The emperor spoke of ‘deep remorse’ for Japan’s actions during World War. 


Official reactions from Beijing and Seoul were rather critical while Washington and Canberra welcomed the statement. So far there has been no official EU reaction. Beijing called for a ‘clean break’ with the past and criticised the visit of three Cabinet ministers to the Yasukuni shrine. President Park said the statement ‘did not live up to expectations.’ She welcomed parts of the statement but regretted the omissions, especially on comfort women. Washington and Canberra both pointed to the exemplary international role that Japan has played since the end of the war. The domestic reaction in Japan was predictably along partisan lines. The ruling coalition praised it as balanced while the opposition criticised it for blurred messages.


The Abe statement was clear in reaffirming past government apologies and setting out Japan’s desire to be a peace-loving responsible international partner. But it was also ambiguous in certain areas such as the comfort women and will allow Japan’s critics to continue to use the history weapon. Unfortunately, Japan has never undergone the kind of internal soul-searching and wholehearted rejection of its war role that has taken place in Germany. This was referred to by Angela Merkel in a speech during her March visit to Tokyo this year. There remain many deniers of what happened in the 1930s and 40s and Japanese history textbooks and museums, eg Yasukuni, leave much to be desired. It is doubtful that this situation will change in the foreseeable future which means that despite Abe’s statement Japan’s neighbours will continue to criticise it as and when they feel it brings advantages.