By: Jeroen Gelsing
Photo: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (published under fair use policy for intellectual non-commercial purposes)
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s an… apology, sort of. In fact, nobody seems quite sure whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did any sort of apologising in his public statement of August 14, delivered to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to end World War Two. Though Abe mouthed the words ‘deep remorse’ and ‘heartfelt apology’, he used these in the context of past apologies, issuing no fresh ones of his own. Equally, the object of Abe’s pseudo-apology remained ill-defined as ‘actions during the war’, thereby avoiding specific reference to the key issues of wartime atrocities and ‘comfort women’.
The responses to Abe’s speech by China and South Korea, the two countries at loggerheads with Japan in Northeast Asia’s ‘history wars’, were predictably damning. The Korean media, which have a tendency to see Japanese scheming against it everywhere, uniformly noted dissatisfaction, finding Abe’s speech ‘insulting’ and ‘disingenuous’. Chinese state media, similarly critical, said that Abe’s statement ‘trod a fine line with linguistic tricks’ and called the speech a ‘retrogression’ from past apologies.
But should we indeed insist that Japan fully refresh its sorry-saying at every turn? Abe specifically noted that the position taken by previous cabinets on Japan’s wartime conduct ‘will remain unshakable into the future’. Thus, Abe pledged to uphold the so-called Kono and Murayama Statements, the first of which (from 1993) acknowledged and apologised for the Japanese Army’s wartime use of comfort women, while the second (from 1995) apologised for wartime aggression and damages caused.
Given these facts, Abe argued in the same statement, the present and future Japanese generations, who ‘have nothing to do with that war’, should not labour under the burden of continuous apology for the conduct of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Put differently, Abe calls for closing the book on the past, as has been done successfully with Germany. Seen from this perspective, Tokyo is not to blame for continual historical tension in Northeast Asia. Instead, foreign nations’ inability to put Japan’s past to rest is what keeps historical animosities alive in Northeast Asia. And though Japan could have tried harder to avoid the controversy that tarnishes the sincerity of its apologies, there is something to be said for this interpretation.
Even so, Abe’s statement could have been less reflective of the amount of apologising Tokyo thinks it needs to do and more about the geopolitical expediency of simply re-issuing a full apology. The problems with that, however, are manifold. First, an apology on par or beyond the Murayama statement would have incurred the wrath of hawks in Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); support Abe needs to pursue his constitutional revision program and effect badly-needed structural economic reforms. Second, each Japanese wartime conduct statement has a dual regional audience (China and South Korea), and these two primary consumers enjoy very different bilateral relations with Japan. In a desire not to submit to the first consumer, Japan cannot but antagonise the historically sensitive second; and if Japan were to accommodate the second, Abe would be accused of being soft on the first, a domestic political impossibility.
Regarding China: even a comprehensive apology from Japan would have left the significant geopolitical flashpoints in Sino-Japanese relations unaffected. There are simply too many areas of contention to bury the hatchet at this stage – from East China Sea island ownership to oil and gas exploitation rights to naval build-up and regional hegemony. Additionally, anti-Japanism is an extremely useful political tool for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Egging on anti-Japanese sentiment is a sure-fire way to arouse nationalist feelings, which, so long as CCP is seen as the protector of the nation, serves to fortify its own grip on power. In short, Abe’s words could not – in and of themselves – have brought about a significant structural improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. There is no missed opportunity here.
South Korean discontent with Abe’s statement, on the other hand, springs from an altogether different well; one less cool and calculating than the CCP’s manipulation of Sino-Japanese relations for its own gain, and more from the Korean public heart. If Sino-Japanese relations are increasingly characterised by regional rivalry with military undertones, Korea’s gripes with Japan revolve around a struggle for recognition – not for sovereignty, but for equality. One could argue that Korean national identity wrestles with a longstanding sense of inferiority towards Japan, conceived in a humiliating 35 years of colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, and thereafter guided by an unfulfilled desire to achieve perfect parity with an indifferent neighbour.
But Korea senses that despite its exceptional accomplishments in the economic and political realms – its per capita GDP is practically even with Japan’s, and it has made a largely successful switch to democracy – Tokyo is unwilling to recognise the present de facto parity. This is evident, for instance, in Japan’s interpretation of South Korea as a ‘junior partner’ in the US-Japan-Korea trilateral security relationship. But nowhere are the consequences of Japan’s ‘little brother’ attitude more egregious than in the issue of historical mistreatment. Tokyo’s cavalier attitude towards South Korean grievances results in a failure to recognise their poignancy, and thus to take them sufficiently seriously.
That is not to say that Japan’s ‘Korea Fatigue’ over Seoul’s unceasing badgering for wartime apologies isn’t understandable, and perhaps partially justified. Yet, neither side benefits from the sharp deterioration in bilateral relations since 2012, largely over issues of history. However, if amicable Tokyo-Seoul relations are the objective, then the ball of reconciliation must be in Japan’s court. This is so because South Korea, as one scholar has argued, is held prisoner by its own national identity. A multi-decade accumulation of ill-feeling towards Japan has led anti-Japanism to become a core component of the South Korean sense of self. As such, South Korea is unable to recast its relations with Tokyo without the latter redoubling its efforts to break down this construct of the vilified other. That there exists no substitute, the United States has discovered through its frantic, yet largely fruitless, mediation between both sides.
By stopping short of full apology, and especially by failing to explicitly voice remorse for Japan’s wartime use of comfort women, Abe has failed to express what Korea is desperate to hear. The obvious tragedy is that Japan and Korea are natural allies – both find comfort under the US security umbrella and contend with related geopolitical challenges. The failure of these two countries to get along causes chronic stress in Washington’s policy planning staff. Yet, even if the political centre in Seoul recognises that Abe has delivered maximum sorry-saying without exceeding the domestic political boundaries in which he operates, it is doubtful that the Korean media and public will offer their government much room to calmly negotiate a better working relationship with Tokyo.
A day after Abe’s speech, Japanese Emperor Akihito struck a more clearly apologetic tone in his personal commemorative address. But given the sensitivity of Tokyo’s neighbours, this will not be enough to offset Korean public dissatisfaction with Abe’s statement. Thus, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender may well end up marking the state of Northeast Asian reconciliation rather than moving it forward.
Jeroen Gelsing is a doctoral student in War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests converge on the Asia Pacific and include the region’s international security dynamics, geopolitics, and modern history. His work has appeared in Asian Affairs, International Affairs Forum, and the Daily Telegraph, among others.
The author would like to thank Richard Coxford for his helpful comments.
 Recurring stumbling blocks are the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead; and the Abe administration’s planned revision of national history textbooks to further water down already sparse passages on Japan’s wartime aggression.
 A mild thaw has set in only recently. See, for instance, ‘The Hardest Word’, The Economist, August 15, 2015, accessible at: http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21661047-suspense-over-shinzo-abes-statement-will-soon-be-over-hardest-word