Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he plans to revise — likely backtracking from — a 1993 statement that acknowledged government complicity in Japan’s World War II sex slave program. Around the world, advocates of truth-telling and atonement were outraged; at home, Abe’s conservative allies celebrated. Ironically, those conservatives should be among the most chagrined.
Japan’s conservatives increasingly worry about the danger brewing in East Asia from a rising China. But their denials and equivocations about the past undermine the political and military support that Japan will need to manage the troubles ahead.
Japanese conservatives value love of country as an important part of national strength. They argue that focusing on past misdeeds erodes domestic patriotism, so they prefer to emphasize positive aspects of Japan’s history. Conservative politicians and intellectuals have sought to blur distinctions between the World War II combatants; they argue that Japan, in its expansionism and human rights violations, behaved just as other countries did and so should not be singled out for criticism and demands for apologies.
But whether or not the “everyone was doing it” argument holds true, such denials are counterproductive: A country that has been a model global citizen for decades, should draw the clearest possible distinction between good behavior and bad. Instead, Japan’s denials keep its World War II-era crimes in the spotlight, obscuring not only the huge distinctions between the Japan of old and the Japan of today but also the distinctions between it and its contemporary rivals.
Today, Japan is a democratic, free and prosperous country that takes good care of its citizens. Its educated and talented people lead international institutions and multinational corporations; Japan’s achievements in the arts, science and technology have enhanced the lives of people everywhere. The country’s foreign policy is peaceful and generous in development aid, disaster relief and peacekeeping. This 70-year track record could provide a tremendous foundation for national pride and purpose, but by training attention on wartime crimes, Japan’s conservatives distract people at home and abroad from that record.
Tokyo’s denials also undermine conservative national security goals by diverting global attention from the ongoing misdeeds of regional rivals. North Korea’s reprehensible policies are well known: It imprisons, starves, tortures and kills its people; it commits violence against its neighbors and traffics in anything — nuclear technology, women, drugs and counterfeit goods — to make a buck. Yet, incredibly, Japanese conservatives have created a situation in which people around the world can’t help but nod as the planet’s most murderous government lambastes Tokyo for bad behavior.
Japan’s denials are perhaps most self-defeating regarding its emerging competition with China: Today’s Chinese Communist Party abuses dissidents, restricts political rights and violently represses secessionist movements. As China has grown more powerful, Beijing’s foreign policy has grown more assertive; this is particularly clear in territorial disputes with neighbors. Last autumn, in the midst of a crisis over a regional island chain — known to the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and to the Chinese as the Diaoyu — rioters in China burned and looted Japanese businesses and even waved signs advocating the genocide of Japanese. Such behavior would be shocking anywhere but is particularly disturbing in a rising power.
Yet China gets to scold one of the most free and peaceful countries in the world for unprincipled policies. As the Economist lamented in 2006, when Japanese leaders refused to acknowledge past crimes they “let a Communist dictatorship wrest the high ground from a pacifist democracy.” At a time when Japanese conservatives seek to generate both hard and soft power to counter China, their denials squander both. They antagonize global opinion and alienate Japan from potential regional partners who also worry about China’s rise. As any strategist would advise an ambitious Beijing, a country should try to drive a wedge between other nations that might form alliances against it. But Beijing needn’t bother: Japan’s conservatives are doing this to themselves.
Japan’s wartime atrocities were terrible. They shattered the lives of millions of Chinese, Koreans and others. Failing to fully acknowledge the wartime sex slave program is a further injustice to the hundreds of thousands of girls and women whom Japanese soldiers raped, tortured and murdered. Furthermore, by attempting to conceal what was terrible about Japan in the past, conservative leaders obscure what is admirable about Japan today.
Jennifer Lind is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and a faculty associate at the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics.