Abe Speech May Exorcize the Ghosts of History

In an Asia haunted by the ghosts of history, the world was watching with baited breath to see how Japan’s nationalistic Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, would address the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. To the surprise of many, Abe’s Cabinet-approved speech was an amply dignified and contrite effort that attempted to “squarely face up to history” as leaders in China and South Korea demanded.

Abe was under particular scrutiny because he and some of his senior advisers and Cabinet ministers have publicly hinted at disturbing revisionist views of Japan’s history in the 1930s and ’40s.

But the tone and the content of his speech rose to a level few would have predicted; it built on previous speeches Abe gave in Australia and a Joint Session of the US Congress.

The keywords many were looking for were all there—remorse, heartfelt apology, repentance, aggression, Manchurian incident, colonialism—all present and accounted for.  Abe stated that, “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war.” This was an unmistakable reference to major apologies, that of Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama and the statement of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in the 1990s, conceding the Japanese military’s use of “comfort women” during the war. South Korean President Park Geun-hye had specifically made Abe’s adherence to those two statements a prerequisite for improving troubled South Korea-Japan ties.

At a time when tensions in Sino-Japanese relations over the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands (which China claims and calls Diaoyu) are higher than ever, Abe clearly aimed his speech at Beijing’s concerns. Chinese President Xi Jinping had admonished Abe to “squarely deal with history.” In addition to all the other references to past Japanese transgressions Abe made a point of saying,

“How much emotional strength must have existed and what great efforts must have been necessary for the Chinese people who underwent all the sufferings of war and for the former PoWs who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military in order for them to be so tolerant nevertheless.”

In addition, Abe said that “we must pass down from generation to generation” born after World War II the “lessons of history.” And in a seeming response to Xi, Abe stressed that “we Japanese across generations, must squarely face the history of the past.”

Nonetheless, Abe drew a disappointing and disingenuous response from Beijing. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, quickly put out a commentary saying that “Abe’s watered-down apology fails the sincerity test.”

This criticism reflects the depths of distrust and suspicion between the world’s second- and third-largest economic powers. But it is also true that in China, which refuses to discuss its own history post-1949 and the tens of millions killed by Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and the savagery of the 1960s Cultural Revolution, uses history as a weapon. A Chinese Communist Party, for which nationalism is a key source of legitimacy, seems unwilling to give any apology from Japan credence.

How sorry did Abe have to be? The true Chinese response to Abe will reveal itself later this year: Will  Xi agree to hold a summit with Abe?

To its credit, the White House quickly issued a statement commending Abe’s speech for its “expression of deep remorse,” as well as “his commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history.” The White House also pointed out that Japan has been a model global citizen for seventy years, “demonstrating an abiding commitment to peace, democracy and the rule of law.”

Nonetheless, the ghosts of history are not easily exorcised in Asia. It is one of the great ironies that there are “Two Asias,” one economic and one security, as I have previously written in a much-discussed essay. The region has a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” character. The Dr. Jekyll side, or Economic Asia, has become the center of gravity of the global economy, with trade and investment deeply integrating the region.

Yet, the Mr. Hyde “Security Asia” is moving in the opposite direction. Asia has surpassed Europe in military spending, and historical fears and territorial disputes, particularly in the East and South China Seas lead many to fear that Asia is moving toward where Europe was in July 1914, on the cusp of World War 1. It is the US security guarantee and alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and security partnerships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states that has underpinned stability in the region for the past six decades.

One way to think about Asian security is that, as Europe was plagued by tension and conflicts until France and Germany reconciled after World War II, Asia will be rife with tensions until China and Japan come to terms with each other.

Apart from a personal “I’m sorry, really sorry,” if there was a shortcoming in Abe’s speech it is the absence of any specific reference to “comfort women” in Korea. While he did reference the Murayama and Kono statements, as Park has sought, Abe only referred to the issue in general terms when he mentioned women “whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” No reference to any Japanese actions in Korea, which Seoul was looking for, was included. But initial reactions in the Korean press suggest that the tone and general thrust of Abe’s speech did make an impression on Koreans whose scars from Japanese colonialism remain raw.

All told, a fair assessment of the speech is that Abe rose to the occasion with distinction. It wasn’t a home run, but maybe a triple off the wall. Yet, while Abe’s speech was an important step forward in the healing process, Asia’s wounds won’t disappear any time soon.

Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council from 2008-12. He tweets at @Rmanning4.

Related Experts: Robert A. Manning

Image: People watch Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a screen in Tokyo August 14 as he makes a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Abe acknowledged Japan had inflicted "immeasurable damage and suffering" on innocent people, but said generations not involved in the conflict should not be burdened with continued apologies. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)