History is harsh: Japan, the Second World War and east Asian politics

Aaron Matheson Reen explores the contentious legacy of the Second World War in Japan and its visible impact on East Asian politics.


Dominating the northernmost corner of Tokyo’s Kitanomaru Park is the Nippon Budokan. This octagonal structure functions as Japan’s foremost martial arts venue. On August 15, however, the stadium served more solemn purposes. Directed by Emperor Akihito, a service in commemoration of Japanese Second World War casualties was held.

Acknowledging the violent deaths of over 2.5 million individuals is, in itself, hugely significant. Nevertheless, the correlation between this remembrance ceremony and the seventieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War in the Pacific Theatre gave this event added importance. These sombre circumstances served to elucidate Japan’s relationship with its recent past.

In Japan the narrative surrounding the Second World War is arguably unfinished. Without doubt, the legacy of the conflict affects present circumstances. This is felt most powerfully in the domain of international politics. In this respect, Japan’s tense exchanges with its immediate neighbours are partly attributable to the issue of apologising for wartime wrongdoings.

This notion has been conveyed to Japan’s political hierarchy by its continental counterparts. The comments of Hua Chunying, foreign ministry spokesperson for the People’s Republic of China, provide an example. She criticised a speech made by the Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, on August 14. Rebuking Mr Abe for his conclusions on the Second World War, Ms Chunying argued that Japan’s contribution to date was not adequate. Further expressions of remorse for actions during the conflict are, she maintained, “an important basis for Japan to improve relations with its neighbours in Asia”.

Having established the international importance of this historical matter, it becomes necessary to clarify the Japanese position on the subject. A brief statement by Emperor Akihito, delivered at the above ceremony in the Nippon Budokan, provides a point of departure. Striking a reconciliatory tone, the 81-year-old stated that a survey of Japan’s recent past elicited “feelings of deep remorse”. The issues which provoked this emotional response were, nonetheless, left unreferenced. No aspect of the Second World War was highlighted specifically. Instead, Emperor Akihito expressed his “earnest hope that the ravages of war will not be repeated”.

There was a degree of caution in Emperor Akihito’s language. Aside from the sensitive nature of the topic, his reservation is illustrative of a unique constitutional position. Acceding to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, Emperor Akihito inherited the legacy of his father, Emperor Shōwa (sometimes referred to by his personal name, Hirohito). Japan’s defeat in 1945 ushered in changes in Emperor Shōwa’s legal status. In particular, this transition brought about limitations in personal agency.

Under chapter I of the 1947 constitution, which certain quarters believe to disproportionately reflect American aspirations for a post-war Japan, the emperor became “a symbol of the State”. Crucially, he no longer possessed “powers relating to government” and “the advice and approval of the Cabinet [would] be required for all acts of the Emperor in matters of state”. In the sphere of public relations, therefore, those acceding to this position, including its present incumbent, are restricted. Emperor Akihito’s official stance on national issues, including the legacy of the Second World War, cannot be divorced from that of the country’s elected representatives.

It is to Shinzo Abe, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and their junior coalition partners, the New Kōmeitō Party, which the observer must turn for Japan’s “official” approach to historical subjects. To this end, governmental sources echo Emperor Akihito’s viewpoint somewhat. “I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences”, Mr Abe said in his August  14 address.

The prime minister’s speech was, nevertheless, far more substantial than the comments of Emperor Akihito. It provided an interpretation of 19th and 20th century Japanese history. Far from dwelling on the unappealing aspects of the imperial period, Mr Abe lauded what he considers to be its achievements. In this respect, he highlighted that “Japan built a constitutional government earlier than any other nation in Asia” and added that “[t]he country preserved its independence.’ The Russo-Japanese War of 1905, which resulted in the defeat of Tsar Nicholas II’s fleet in the Tsushima Straits, was also cited as giving “encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa”.

The Great Depression, according to Mr Abe, compelled Japan to pursue war as a course of action. “In such circumstances”, he argued, “Japan’s sense of isolation deepened and it attempted to overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force”. When reflecting on the later years of the Second World War, rather than pointing to Japanese actions, he spoke, not without ample justification, on the suffering brought about by allied offensives. “The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the air raids on Tokyo and other cities, and the ground battles in Okinawa”, Mr Abe stated, “took a heavy toll among ordinary citizens without mercy”.

Mr Abe’s analysis dealt with more than the internal affairs of his country. To this end, he highlighted the negative experience of neighbouring regions subject to the Imperial Japanese Army. In doing so, Mr Abe uttered perhaps the weightiest sentences of the speech.  He stated that “[i]n China, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and elsewhere that became the battlefields, numerous innocent citizens suffered and fell victim to battles as well as hardships such as severe deprivation of food”.  The rhetoric employed above is matter of fact. It represents a reserved observation on the circumstances which precipitated the outbreak of hostilities.  

Such circumspection coloured only part of Mr Abe’s speech. In its closing sections, which comment on Japanese obligations to the memory of the Second World War, he was assured in his remarks. While lamenting that the less palatable aspects of the past cannot be “undone”, Mr Abe considered further acts of compunction as unnecessary. “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come,’ he contended, ‘who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise”. Mr Abe’s beliefs reflect the “established” Japanese approach to the Second World War. The undesirable elements of the conflict, though regrettable, have already been recognised and repented for.

Troubled Relations

The Chinese took considerable exception to this contention. Referring directly to Mr Abe’s statement, Ms Chunying instructed that “Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism” and offer a “sincere apology to the people of victim countries”. Mr Abe’s oration was, from a Chinese perspective, marked by a dearth of clarity and sufficiently apologetic gestures.  

China’s characterisation of the conflict as one of Japanese “militarism” may be reflective of contemporary developments. In 2013, Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. The University of California-educated politician has also made ritual donations to this Shinto site. Erected by Emperor Meiji in 1869, the shrine recognises those who died in service to the state. Convicted war criminals are numbered among the acknowledged individuals. Hence, for certain observers, Yasukuni, occupying a central position in the cartography of the Japanese capital, has become a visceral monument to jingoism.

In addition, Mr Abe has sought revisions to Japan’s defensive capabilities. Under chapter II of the 1947 constitution war was renounced “as a sovereign right of the nation”. Sections of the Japanese public support this repudiation. The Buddhist lay organisation, Soka Gakkai, symbolised by its tricolour flag, strongly advocates that Japan’s relations with other countries remain passive. Nevertheless, Mr Abe successfully revised the constitution to allow for “collective self-defence”. This was achieved by passing legislation on September 19. “Collective self-defence” enables Japan to militarily assist friendly nations against aggressors. In such circumstances, Japan itself would not have to be attacked.

Widening the scope for offensive action is indicative of security-related fears in Japan. Engaged in territorial disputes with the Russian Federation, China and the Republic of Korea, coming to terms with Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and lying to the immediate east of an unpredictable Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the potential for unrest is present.

Despite this, the realignment of Japan’s defensive focus, along with Mr Abe’s ties to Yasukuni Shrine, has received condemnation from China. Japan’s perceived recalcitrance on historical matters serves to compliment such censures. It would be unreasonable, however, to suggest that China was utilising the past solely to discredit Japan’s security reforms. The manner in which China was treated during Japanese occupation resonates with its public today. There is, as such, domestic interest in pressing Japan to acknowledge controversial incidents subsequent to its annexation of Manchuria in 1931.  

In responding to Japanese commemorations, South Korea has, more so than China, focused on specific aspects of its subjection to colonial rule. Synonymous with the Korean peninsula are so-called “comfort women”. Debate on their experience during the war continues to the present. On November 19, for instance, Park Yu-ha, a South Korean academic, was indicted by the South Korean judiciary for the contents of her 2013 publication, Teikoku no Ianfu. Ms Yu-ha’s book presented “comfort women” as prostitutes. This depiction is said to have “encroached on the victim’s” personal dignity and hono[u]r with false facts and deviated from freedom of academicism”. The first hearing of this case was convened on Tuesday,  December 8. Ms Yu-ha’s indictment highlights the ongoing confrontation between those who maintain “comfort women” engaged in sexual relations for payment and those who assert that they were forced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japanese troops.

Albeit indirectly, Mr Abe mentioned “comfort women” in his August 14 statement. “We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured” he conceded. Mr Abe’s conciliatory comment was not sufficient to satisfy South Korean wishes. They regard as a “pending historical issue … the sexual slavery victims of Japan’s Imperial Army”. Japanese awareness of the exploitation of these women is not, as far as South Korea is concerned, an adequate act of remorse.

Should this outstanding matter be solved, a South Korean diplomat revealed on August 15, “a new future” will be explored Japan. This would manifest itself in greater cooperation on “the North Korean nuclear issue, economy, social affairs and culture, as well as cooperation for peace and stability in northeast Asia”.

A dichotomy emerges when the arguments and counterarguments surrounding penitence for Japanese conduct during the Second World War are contrasted. The Japanese position is outlined by Mr Abe’s plea for no further signals of apology. However, the Chinese and South Korean stance is one which argues the contrary. This is the crux of the issue. One party desires something of a clean break from historical matters while another presses for greater engagement on the subject. Irrespective of viewpoint, accommodating these blocs is a prerequisite to fully normalising relations in the region.

How are these contradicting aims and objectives to be reconciled?  Perhaps progress was made at a conference convened at the University of Tokyo during the summer. A regular commentator on Japan’s foreign policy, Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, has detailed its suggestions in the Asahi Shimbun (which translates as Morning Sun Newspaper). It proposes that statesmen visit sites pertinent to other country’s experience of the Second World War. For example, Japanese leaders would journey to locations of historical importance in China and South Korea and representatives from those nations would travel to corresponding sites in Japan. Dr Mira Rapp Hooper, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C., holds this plan in high esteem. The Columbia University graduate argues such measures could “be a useful first step in a broader reconciliation”.

Despite scholarly attention on the subject, it remains uncertain how this problem will be resolved. The Second World War may continue to be a sticking point in east Asian politics. Through a new approach or some form of accommodation, matters relating to the past could be put to bed. There is, nonetheless, one constant in this situation: that, as Mr Abe ruefully admitted, “[h]istory is harsh” and there is no obvious method in coming to terms with its legacy.