The world may view August 15 as the date when World War II finally ended in Asia. But for Japan, the emotional end came a week earlier, when the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan. The plight of Hiroshima, and later Nagasaki, continue to epitomize the horrors of war that devastated Japanese civilian life and have informed Japan’s pacifist foreign policy in the decades since.
But is that starting to change?
A fear of armed conflict has undoubtedly made Japanese wary of shifting away from the country’s war renouncing post-war constitution. Indeed, even though the document was imposed upon Japan by the United States, it has nonetheless enjoyed solid support from the majority of a population that believes Japan has a unique voice in the world as the only victim of nuclear attacks.
It is not surprising, then, that recent moves to reinterpret the constitution by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration have caused some concern among many Japanese. Indeed, according to one recent poll, some 60% of Japanese voters oppose the government’s push to give its defense forces greater scope to support the United States and the ability to take part in overseas military activities.
Yet as Abe prepares to make a public statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the ending of the war, it is clear that it is not just Japanese who will be listening intently to what the prime minister has to say on the issue — neighbors China and South Korea are also concerned.
While previous Japanese premiers have issued statements apologizing for the country’s aggression across Asia seven decades ago, both Beijing and Seoul have argued that these statements have not gone far enough. In 1995, for example, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama stated that “through its colonial rule and aggression”, Japan had “caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations,” offering his “heartfelt apology…and feelings of profound mourning for all victims.” As for sexual slavery during the war, then-chief cabinet secretary and later Prime Minister Yohei Kono stated in 1993 that the Japanese military was involved in mobilizing so-called comfort women which “severely injured the honor and dignity of many women…who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds.” The Asian Women’s Fund was established the following year to offer compensation to the victims.
Over the past decade in particular, however, it has become increasingly clear that there was a rapid change in the balance of economic as well as military power among East Asian nations, combined with a growing sense of national identity and pride in China and South Korea as well as Japan, has prompted many to reassess the region’s history and legacy of World War II.
Even before Abe pushed through defense reforms through Japan’s lower house last month, it was clear that history played an outsized role in defining diplomatic relations between countries that one would think would be growing ever closer as they have enjoyed an astonishing rate of post-war economic growth. Yet the fact that Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye have yet to hold an official bilateral meeting since both took office just over two years ago underscores the failure of these neighbors to hold meaningful and important discussions about the future of the region.
Of course, East Asian nations aren’t the only ones that have had trouble reconciling a painful and complicated past in the Pacific — it was only in 2010 that a sitting U.S. ambassador visited Hiroshima to take part in the annual ceremony commemorating the 130,000 victims of the atomic bomb. Moreover, then-Ambassador John Roos did not speak at the event, and offered no apology for the devastation wrought on the city, instead merely stating the need for global cooperation to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Still, although some might be curious about the approach taken by the United States at this sensitive time, most eyes will undoubtedly be on Abe, and there is uncertainty whether his speech will end up stoking concerns, or easing them.
Of course, even if it proves to be the latter, it is unrealistic to expect one speech to overcome the deep wounds of historical memory once and for all. But that doesn’t mean that Abe’s reflections on the legacy of World War II can’t spur constructive debate on how changes in East Asia require all actors in the region — Japan, the United States, China and South Korea — to find a way of addressing challenges together.
Abe might not be able to completely win over his critics, but he can at least take a firm step in the right direction.
Shihoko Goto is the senior associate for Northeast Asia with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington. The views expressed are the writer’s own.