28.01.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan and World Wars

5339_4Both 2014 and 2015 feature important dates closely related to some of the most murderous events in human history. The beginning of the World War I was celebrated last year, and the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II will be commemorated in 2015. Japan was involved in both wars. It took part in different coalitions, and the outcomes were completely different for the country.

One hundred years ago, Japan was among the winners who, as the saying goes, are not judged and that anniversary was not a source of any kind of inconvenience for Japanese authorities. The same cannot be said about the forthcoming World War II’s 70th Anniversary. For Japan, the war resulted in unconditional surrender and the country’s leadership being put on trial.

Some of the neighbours of Japan (mainly China and South Korea) still hold a “historical” grudge against it, which directly affects bilateral relations as well as the development of the situation in the Pacific Region as a whole.

The remaining “historical” complaints against Japan cannot be fully explained by the consistent efficiency of the secret principle of international policy, according to which “the loser is responsible for everything”. The loser is responsible for both his own misdeeds and for those acts, responsibility for which should be shared with the winners.

Today’s Japan inherited a “skeleton in the closet” begotten by its own policy of the first half of the 20th century. The period of active military actions in the East of Asia was especially “productive”. It is enough to remember the Nanking Massacre or the Comfort Women issue (see – Vladimir Terekhov, Japan-Korea Relations: Comfort Women Issue, NEO, 15.01.2015).

It will be extremely unpleasant for the Japanese authorities to touch upon these issues in any way (however, they will have to do so during the forthcoming anniversary events), for Japan’s current reputation, with few (though very important) exceptions, is rather good not only in Asia but across the entire world.

This reputation was gained by great efforts over 50 post-war years. That period was aimed at restoring Japan’s devastated infrastructure, ensuring the future of the country’s economic development, and stimulating the formation of new centres of economic development in Asia as part of the flying geese paradigm.

South Korea and China, the two “historical” plaintiffs against Japan, are among those actors upon whom the FGP has had the most positive impact.

It is important to note, however, that the complaints of the latter against Japan are “historical” only at first sight. In fact, the continuing ambiguous stance of Tokyo on Japan’s role in the Pacific war is additional evidence of the “revival of Japanese militarism” for Beijing and Seoul.

From the formal perspective of an outside observer, such an assessment seems to be an explicit, emotionally charged exaggeration. Japan’s current defence expenditure, in ratio to national GDP, is under 1%, in other words, it is well below the vast majority of countries.

Japan maintains the image of a peaceful country and a rather productive participant of various UN programmes. Its bid for permanent membership in the future “reformed” UN Security Council enjoys almost universal support. However, there are few exceptions (and they are just the same).

It is difficult for “an outsider” to understand the historical causes of mutual distrust between the Japanese, on the one hand, and the Chinese and Koreans, on the other. For example, some of Japan’s activities in the field of defence and national security, quite common in the existing system of international relations, provoke its neighbours’ fears.

Why should Japan’s intention to lift its self-restriction to exercise the right to collective self-defence, which is provided by the UN Charter, make one wary?

In fact, Japan’s intention to waive the “antimilitary” article 9 of its national Constitution (unique in global practice) should also not arouse any emotions. Like other countries, Japan has the right to be a member of military-political alliances, for example, with the United States.

On the face of it, the gradual lifting of restrictions on the trade in arms produced by Japanese companies seems quite ordinary. Today trade in arms is commonplace, everyone who has the opportunity is involved in it.

Japanese leadership’s explanations of special attention to the field of defence in the framework of a relatively modest budget also seem convincing. China’s defence budget exceeds the Japanese one manyfold, and Chinese navy drills are more often conducted to the east of the so-called first island chain, which includes Japan.

However, these are exactly the “general” reasonings of outsiders. Since, for example, the activation of Japan’s diverse cooperation in the field of defense with the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia, and India provokes justified, historically motivated fears in China. They are reinforced by the “lack of sincere repentance for the crimes” committed during World War II.

It should be mentioned that such an act of repentance by Japan did take place in the mid 90s. These were the so-called Kono Statement in 1993 (Yohei Kono was Chief Cabinet Secretary at the time) and the Murayama Statement (a speech given by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama) in 1995.

However, by the middle of the last decade top level Japanese politicians began underlining that such “speeches” and “statements” were made “under external political pressure”, and not supported by actual data.

For some time the incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also quite explicitly supported the revision of the official Japanese position of the 90s on the role of Japan in the World War II. This serves as the reason for the Chinese and Koreans to doubt the mere existence of the “sincere repentance” of today’s Japanese politicians for the actions of their ancestors during the Second World War.

The speeches of all the participants will be of utmost importance during the forthcoming anniversary events. However, the rhetoric of the successors of both “guilty parties” in the World War II will be monitored especially closely. It then seems noteworthy that the first brief public statement by Shinzo Abe in 2015 was devoted to the topic of the forthcoming Anniversary.

It is still hard to say whether China and South Korea will be satisfied by Shinzo Abe’s intention to “write about Japanese regret in connection with the war, the postwar Japanese history as a peaceful nation and its participation in activity both in the Pacific Region and across the globe.

One can only guess whether the speech delivered by the oh so popular in Russia Jen Psaki on behalf of the US State Department on the same topic and on the same date was a coincidence. She approved of Japan’s intention to “continue to work with its neighbors to resolve historical issues in a friendly atmosphere and through dialogue“.

In connection with this statement, it is important to underline two points. Firstly, it is by no means the first such statement. In particular, the US President gave quite a similar speech on the topic in the spring of 2014. Secondly, one would hope that in the future, Japan will not have to interpret these official US statements as “political pressure”.

The situation of the beginning of 2015 with the forthcoming anniversary events begins to remind of an introduction to a dramatic play and, as the saying goes, one could “grab the popcorn”. However, we are talking about important aspects of modern global politics, whose focus is shifting towards the Pacific Region, and Japan-China relations are coming to the foreground.

It is very important that during the upcoming events all the participants, both “the guilty ones” and those who refer to themselves as “innocent victims”, choose their words carefully. Thus, frequent analogies between the current state of American-Chinese relations and (to a greater extent now) Japanese-Chinese relations and the situation before the World War I should not go beyond the theoretical ideas of “expert observers”.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific Region, specially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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