Abe’s clever game

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been invited by China to participate in the 3rd September ceremony for the end of the second world war.

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Some news speak louder than words. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been invited by China to participate in the 3rd September ceremony for the end of the second world war. He is unlikely to attend, but may well visit Beijing immediately following. 

This news follows Abe’s much awaited statement on the second world war. There could be no statement more careful and balanced than this one, actually issued as a “cabinet decision”. Abe’s stance on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 was awaited by many, by some with apprehension, by others with glee. Mr Abe, it was said, was trapped between the influence of the rightist end of Japan’s political spectrum, his own family heritage, and the seemingly endless requirement from other states for further apologies.

Not only has Abe successfully managed to escape this ‘trap’ he has also added several layers of political intent to his historical statement. First off, as noted by many, he has struck the right chord. “Grief”, “repentance”, “remorse”, a full confirmation of his predecessors’ apologies, and two special mentions: one for the magnanimity of the Chinese who let Japanese POWs go back home, another for the “dignity and honour of women (that) were severely injured”.

Second, he has put Japan’s actions in an historical context that is undeniable, without using it as justification: the unmet hopes for the League of Nations after the first world war, the formation of economic blocs in the Great Depression that demonstrably trapped Japan more than any other economy, the three million Japanese casualties, including those from the world’s only atomic bombings.  He never uses this context to suggest that Japan had no choice. But recalling Japan’s sufferings and its ruin in 1945 speaks to a domestic audience and reminds everybody that it was the choices made from 1931 that were wrong.

Third, he has directly addressed China above any other Asian neighbour (much to the chagrin of South Korea).  He has done this in two ways: with a historical warning about Japan’s precedent in escaping its own difficulties by becoming a “challenger” to “the international order”. “Japan took the wrong course,” he notes, against which Japan’s “domestic political system could not serve as a brake”. The acknowledgement and the warning are delivered in the same breath.

But there is also a key opening, where he extols the efforts the Chinese have made to overcome their sufferings at the hands of Japan, and praises their “tolerance”.

Indeed, these mentions are made at the expense of Korea, which rates a very limited mention (sandwiched between Taiwan and the Philippines). There is an excellent diplomatic reason for that. Every time Japan has made an isolated opening to South Korea in the past two decades (with apologies in 1998, or a proposal for a legal resolution of territorial disputes in 2012), this has been taken by China as an insult, by seemingly prioritising Korea. This time, Abe addresses China directly above any other nation.

There are, however, two mental reservations apparent in his declaration. Though he singled out the special plight of women, he avoided direct mention of “comfort women” or army-run prostitution, and in fact alluded to women’s sufferings in other conflicts – certainly a historical reality. The omission clearly relates to his assessment that relations with Korea matter less at present than with China, and to Japanese fatigue at the resuscitation of the issue in Korea.

More generally, Abe expressed the desire that future Japanese generations should no longer need to apologise again for the past. And though this is immediately balanced by the “need to squarely face the history of the past” and to “pass it on to the future”, he rejects the requirement for endless apology that is sometimes voiced in Asia, particularly China, and he distinguishes it from recollection of the past. One might add that indeed guilt is individual, not collective.

Abe’s pronouncement will be disputed in Japan itself – where a revisionist right exists, and where a self-castigating left seeks to prevent the return of Japan to a more “normal state”, that might respond to conflicts and contribute more equally to its allies or partners. But the reactions in Asia are an indication that he has gone in the right direction. While Korean leaders express frustration that their own requirements have not been met, China’s official pronouncements have been remarkably restrained and have avoided personal attacks. That China has kept an invitation to Abe to participate in the 3rd September 3 celebration of the end of the second world war is another strong sign. Abe is still unlikely to attend himself, but he might well, go immediately afterwards and talk to China’s leaders – in much the same way as Angela Merkel avoided the Moscow ceremony but visited Russia soon after in May. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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