Abe Urged to Follow Up on Statement
to Mend Fences with China, S. Korea

August 30, 2015

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent statement about Japan's wartime history and its postwar efforts for peace was largely satisfactory, but he should strive to do more to convey Japan's resolve to uphold democratic values to neighboring countries, notably China and South Korea, Japanese political watchers say.

The statement, issued Aug. 14, one day before the 70th anniversary of the last war's end, was criticized as overlong, but it contained no radical expressions, such as those feared in some quarters, to justify Japan's past, said Takao Yamada, a columnist for The Mainichi Newspapers.

Abe's statement was compared to the one issued on the 50th anniversary of the war's end in 1995 by then socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

There are some unsatisfactory points in the latest statement, among them the absence of a clear subject for part of the sentences, but the prime minister mentioned the four key words - colonial rule, aggression, remorse and apology - that were used in the Murayama statement to describe Japan's acts before and during the war, said Akio Takahara, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Law and Politics. "There was no sense of incongruity about its contents," he said.

Ken Jimbo, an associate professor at Keio University's Faculty of Policy Management, noted that the statement reflects changes in the prime minister's view on Japan's history since he inaugurated the current administration in December 2012.

Because the prime minister is generally seen as leaning to the right, his statement might have had a more rightist nuance, but it was "quite liberal," Jimbo said.

The prime minister has come to have an unassuming view of the past, following his speeches before the Australian Parliament and the U.S. Congress, and at the latest meeting of the Bandung Conference, which groups Asian and African countries, from last year to this year, he said.

Discussions at an advisory team established by the Cabinet before the release of the statement also helped him to refine his view about the wartime history, Jimbo said.

The three experts were assessing the importance of the landmark statement at a discussion organized by the independent Japanese think tank The Genron NPO.

According to The Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo, who served as moderator for the discussion, a Genron NPO survey targeting well-informed figures in Japan found that 307 respondents were sharply divided on whether the statement was satisfactory. Of the respondents, 45.6 percent said they are satisfied with the statement while 41.7 percent replied in the negative. The reply "can't say either way" accounted for 11.7 percent.

Yamada, who was one of the 16 members of the advisory team, said that Japanese people are poles apart in their opinions about Japan's wartime history. Some believe Japan's deeds before or during the war were completely wrong while others argue they were totally acceptable. The prime minister apparently hoped to present an intermediate view that would go some way to repair the split, Yamada said.

The questionnaire also revealed that 25.4 percent of the respondents expect the statement to contribute to improving Japan's relations with China and South Korea. However, 25.1 percent took a negative view of better relations with the two countries while 33.2 percent of them replied "can't say either way."

Takahara said that the fact that the statement used all of the four key words, including aggression, might satisfy the Chinese. It is true that the statement was vague on who was the aggressor, but when he appeared on a TV program the same day as he released the statement, Abe remarked, "I also think it (Japan's action during the war) was an (act of) aggression." Japan should carefully explain such a point of view to other countries in Asia, Takahara said.

When Abe inaugurated the current Cabinet, he had a strong desire, supported by those in the conservative camp, to look again at the postwar regime, and he was apparently aiming at reviewing the Murayama statement, Jimbo said. But studies and surveys on releasing the statement made him recognize that various criteria have become established in Japan during the 70 years since the end of the war, he said.

Looking back at Japan's acts before and during the last war, the statement noted that Japan became a "challenger" to the world order that the international community sought to establish after World War I. "This is a term that is never used when a country tries to justify its acts," Jimbo said.

The phrase can be interpreted to mean that Japan recognizes that it was a "revisionist state" in the early part of the 20th century and it is repentant about that, he said.

From such a point of view, Abe referred to the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan's postwar constitution, and this can be seen as a move to complete, not review as sought by the conservatives, the postwar regime, Jimbo said.

The prime minister's revised view about Japan's history also reflects foreign countries' sharp reactions to his visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo, which honors the souls of the war dead, including war criminals, Jimbo said. The visits drew bitter criticism not just from China and South Korea but also from Western countries, he noted. These moves represented restraints on Japan's external actions and indicated that Japan's understanding of itself cannot be free from the international structure, Jimbo said. This was "an important lesson" for Japan's foreign policy, he said.

The fact that the prime minister is a quick learner is very welcome, Takahara said. He stressed the importance of translating the statement into foreign languages so that Japan's position will be thoroughly conveyed to countries concerned.

The prime minister should take actions to follow up on the statement, for example, by sending special envoys to countries concerned, if necessary, Takahara said.

A separate Genron questionnaire sought comments about the Abe statement from well-informed persons in China and South Korea. The respondents expressed no wholesale criticism, but many of them found it less satisfactory, according to Kudo.

The Chinese do not appear to be totally satisfied with the statement, but their understanding must be that it will not hold back moves for better relations between Japan and China, said Takahara, a Japanese member of the New Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century.

In the questionnaire on whether the Abe statement will pave the way to repair Japan's relations with China and South Korea, 10.6 percent of the respondents replied that it will contribute to improving relations with China but that it will not do so for relations with South Korea.

There were fewer remarks about issues of interest to South Korea in the statement and this apparently led to the skepticism about an improvement in Japan's relations with South Korea, Yamada explained. South Korean President Park Geun-hye gave a measure of appreciation to the Abe statement, but it remains unclear how South Korea views the statement, he said.

China is trying to demonstrate its victory in what it sees as a war against fascism, in an attempt to draw many countries into its camp, but Japan would do better to recognize that it was a challenger to the international order in the prewar years, rather than opposing China's campaign outright, according to Jimbo. While expressing remorse about the past, Japan should emphasize its resolve to continue to pursue common values, such as the rule of law and democracy, he said.

The latest statement will help Japan to win many countries' support for its current position and in that event, China will find itself in a position where it cannot object to Japan's position, Jimbo said.

Jimbo took a cautious view of an improvement in Japan's relations with South Korea in the immediate future. Japan will have to make a difficult decision on how to deal with South Korea's demands for Japan's clear apology over the fate of Korean women forced to provide sex to soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army during the war, he noted.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to visit the United States in September, China understands that relations between Japan and China must be stable in the years to come, Jimbo said. Noting Japan-China relations are showing signs of improvement, he stressed that Japan should not lose this opportunity to better its relationship with China.

The three-way discussion, which preceded the 11th meeting of the Tokyo-Beijing Forum, a bilateral non-governmental dialogue in October, was also devoted to confirming the private sector's role in working for peace and stability in Asia.

Jimbo mentioned the Abe administration's policy of improving Japan's defense preparedness by allowing itself to exercise the right to collective self-defense. Because China sees the policy initiative as a provocation, Japan should speak out publicly and stress its intention not to return to militarism, he said.

China harbors fears that Japan's actions are unpredictable and therefore, Japan should make more efforts to dispel such concerns, Yamada said.

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