Just today, it has been announced that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. It will be the first time the two have met even though Park was elected into her office over a year ago. The reason has been the continued controversial nationalistic debates between Japan, South Korea, and China, related to Japan’s war crimes in the period leading up to the Pacific War.
So often, whenever discussions about this appear, the immediate reaction I have to see in America is to blame Japan. “Why don’t they apologize?” “Why do they still publish those textbooks which deny everything?” “Are they planning to repeat what they did 70 years ago?” And so on, and so on. But like so much of international politics, it is not that simple. It is not a case of “South Korea right, Japan wrong.” It is not a case of “Japan right, South Korea wrong.” But since so much of this discussion tends to lean towards the former, I want to balance it out and give a defense of Japanese actions and how they have in fact, sincerely attempted to repent for their actions since the Imperial era.
Let me begin by saying this: my mother emigrated from Japan to the United States about 40 years ago. She has always defended Imperial Japan’s actions during the Second Sino-Japanese War as well as the lead up to the war with the United States, whitewashing her native country’s actions to such an extent that I would never believe possible if I had not seen it up close. I am mentioning this, because so frequently when the discussion about Imperial Japan comes up, it needs to be made explicitly clear: I am not defending Imperial Japan’s actions in the slightest. Imperial Japan was a lunatic, nihilistic state which went so insane that it believed that it could take on the United States, a country which had over 17 times its national income, and win. The world is better off without it.
But the idea that Japan has completely forgotten what it did, or that it has never apologized, is wrong. Japan has apologized for the actions of the Empire numerous times. High-ranking Japanese officials, including recent Prime Ministers Naoto Kan, Yukio Hatoyama, and Junichiro Koizumi, have all apologized for Imperial Japanese actions, whether against China, Korea, or the United States. In 1994, Japan set up an Asian Women’s Fund to provide compensation to comfort women, women who were forced into prostitution for the benefit of Japanese soldiers, over the objection of Japanese nationalists. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been deservedly lambasted over his continued visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, but even he declared that he would not revise earlier Japanese apologies on comfort women and spoke of his pain at the “immeasurable suffering” which they suffered. It is true that Japan has not taken a policy of total contrition similar to that of Germany, but by global standards, whether it is Turkey who continues to deny the Armenian genocide, Russia which has continued to look back with not a little nostalgia on the Soviet era and who voted Stalin as their 3rd most popular historical figure back in 2008, or even the Western democracies who don’t hesitate to gloss over their colonial era, Japan has been sincere in its efforts to show that they do not intend to repeat the mistakes of the Empire.
“What about the textbooks?” One may cry. “Surely these show that Japan is not sincere in its apologies?” The fact is that those textbooks which deny Japan’s wartime role are to put it simply, fringe. The textbooks which are most widely used in Japanese schools do in fact discuss the Japanese role in the Nanjing massacre and they do place the blame for the Asian wars on Japan. The tone of the widely-used Japanese textbooks is not that of a tragic Japan being ganged up on by cruel Westerners: it is that Japan made a colossal blunder with militaristic adventures, and that it should never be repeated. Claiming that a few Japanese textbooks show that Japan is secretly revisionist is like arguing that children in Texas do not learn of evolution because a few anti-evolution books slip out here and there – something which I know from personal experience is not the case.
These facts do not mean that Japan is entirely blameless for the perception that they have never repented for their actions. The Yasukuni shrine visits could be excused by the fact that the Prime Ministers who have visited have gone there as private citizens and not as the leader of Japan, but it is still troubling. Furthermore, Japan has apologized for its actions, the nature of democracy means that there will always be those who want to take a more triumphalist narrative of their country’s history. It took the United States 134 years for both the Senate and the House of Representatives since the passage of the 13th Amendment to formally apologize for slavery – and even then, the Senate explicitly stated that this apology precluded any attempts towards compensation. A large part of this continued controversy over Japan’s role in the Second World War is that both China and South Korea need the specter of a revisionist Japan in order to bolster nationalist legitimacy which they both sorely need. And yes, both – as Professor Robert Kelly noted, South Korea is in a continued nationalist struggle with North Korea over which country is the true Korea. South Korean sympathies towards the north means that attacking Kim Jong-Un lacks the same ability to score easy political points that attacking Japan does, as Korean hatred towards Japan can at times border on the absurd.
International politics on practically every issue is not something which can be divided into “one side is good, and the other is bad”, something which Americans in particular seem to have difficulty grasping. The controversy over the legacy of Imperial Japan is not as simple as Japanese revisionism, as in fact the majority of the Japanese population as well as its leaders understand the role in which their grandfathers played in sowing chaos and destruction in East Asia. It is a both a nuanced delicate affair as well as an excuse for the East Asian countries to screech about who has the best nationalistic legacy. Nothing more, and nothing less.