News analysis

Abe's Pearl Harbour visit: China irked as Japan turns a page in history

Abe's tribute to war dead hailed as historic gesture, but Beijing calls it ostentatious

Japan turned another page in its war history as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid tribute to the war dead at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbour on Tuesday (yesterday morning, Singapore time).

The unprecedented gesture by Mr Abe, who is seen as a conservative nationalist, spoke volumes in Tokyo and Washington, but has been accused by Beijing as being "ostentatious".

The visit comes as Tokyo seeks to put its wartime ghosts to bed by forging forward-looking ties with such countries as Russia and South Korea. Mr Abe has courted Russian President Vladimir Putin over 16 meetings - the most recent just two weeks ago - in the hopes of reaching an agreement over four disputed islands that have prevented the two countries from inking a peace treaty to end World War II.

And exactly a year ago yesterday, Tokyo reached a landmark deal with Seoul on a dispute over wartime "comfort women" or sex slaves that had soured ties for decades, with Mr Abe hailing a "new era" for the two US allies.

 
 

Beijing, in the meantime, views the Pearl Harbour visit with contempt. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said: "Without peace reconciliation with China and other victimised countries in Asia, Japan can never leave this part of history behind."

The state-linked Global Times and Xinhua news agency, in a series of commentaries yesterday, called on Mr Abe to visit Nanjing - the site of a massacre in 1937 when invading Japanese troops killed Chinese numbering from 142,000 to 300,000.

Mr Obama and Mr Abe placing wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii on Tuesday to honour those killed in the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack. Mr Abe and Mr Obama at a joint press conference in Hawaii on Tuesday, held after both leaders visited Pearl
Mr Obama and Mr Abe placing wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii on Tuesday to honour those killed in the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Mr Obama and Mr Abe placing wreaths at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii on Tuesday to honour those killed in the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack. Mr Abe and Mr Obama at a joint press conference in Hawaii on Tuesday, held after both leaders visited Pearl
Mr Abe and Mr Obama at a joint press conference in Hawaii on Tuesday, held after both leaders visited Pearl Harbour. The visit comes as Tokyo seeks to put its wartime ghosts to bed. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NO REPEAT OF WAR HORRORS

I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here, as well as to the spirits of all the brave men and women whose lives were taken by a war that commenced in this very place. We must never repeat the horrors of war again. This is the solemn vow we, the people of Japan, have taken.

JAPANESE PREMIER SHINZO ABE

RESIST URGE TO TURN INWARD

It is here that we remember that even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonise those who are different.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

Japanese news agency Kyodo News also quoted US-based Chinese scholar Zhao Quansheng, an international relations professor at the American University, as urging Mr Abe to take steps towards rapprochement with Beijing. "If you sincerely handle history issues, I think every country can be reasonable," he said. "China is not an exception."

But Mr Abe, 62, had said last year that Japan has already "repeatedly expressed feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology", including making landmark apologies in 1995 and 2005, and that the country should not be "predestined to apologise".

China accuses Japan of revisionism - they have conflicting views of the massacre, and some Japanese conservatives believe Chinese accounts were fabricated or exaggerated.

Dr Tosh Minohara of Kobe University noted the shared values between Japan and the United States as behind the Pearl Harbour visit. In terms of making amends for the war, however, he told The Straits Times: "There has to be a point where enough is enough."

He also noted how Japan has contributed much to China through overseas development assistance in the post-war decades.

"China does not acknowledge any of that, so what is there to gain by Mr Abe going to Nanjing?" he said. "It is Chinese action which has been driving Japan so close to the US."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2016, with the headline 'China irked as Japan turns a page in history'. Print Edition | Subscribe