Takayuki Tanaka

World War II statement: Abe must choose his words carefully

A South Korean protester hitting an effigy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an anti-Japan rally outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Any careless remark in Mr Abe's World War II anniversary statement is bound to draw angry reactions from South K
A South Korean protester hitting an effigy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an anti-Japan rally outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Any careless remark in Mr Abe's World War II anniversary statement is bound to draw angry reactions from South Korea and China.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing to draft a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II that he will release this summer. His statement will look back on past wars, highlight the peace and prosperity enjoyed by Japan today and also clarify what kinds of tasks it must tackle in the future.

The most difficult part of issuing such a statement is how it should deal with war-related issues from the past. If his statement fails to properly address the historical perceptions of Japan as a vanquished nation in World War II, it is bound to arouse a division of opinion both at home and abroad, a development conducive to creating turmoil in national politics. That would be exactly akin to what this country experienced in the summer 20 years ago.

In June 1995, the prime minister was Mr Tomiichi Murayama, then chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, who led the ruling coalition of the SDPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party. His coalition government could be regarded as unorthodox in that the minority force of SDPJ members was supported by the majority force of the LDP.

The key factor behind the confusion that reigned in national politics that year was not a statement issued by Mr Murayama as prime minister but a resolution earlier adopted by the Diet. Prior to the statement, he sought to see the Diet adopt a resolution marking the 50th anniversary of the great war's end, on the strength of a consensus reached between the LDP and SDPJ.

Mr Murayama attempted to settle the so-called historical perception issue once and for all, a move that he hoped would be made possible by ensuring the Diet, the highest organ of state power, passed a resolution aimed at offering an apology for Japan's pre-war invasion of China and its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. His line of thinking was typical of the SDPJ's pursuit of anti-war and pacifist goals.

However, some conservative LDP members strongly opposed Mr Murayama's move. Their sentiment was echoed by the Japan War Bereaved Families Association, a national organisation comprising families of the war dead. The association, a major LDP support group, flexed its muscles with the LDP, saying "the honour of the war dead must not be hurt".

Mr Koichi Kato, then a senior LDP member tipped as a prospective party chief, said: "The issue of Emperor Showa's responsibility (related to World War II) could be brought up again." At that time, six years had passed since the death of the emperor, who had nominally served as the supreme commander of the pre-war Imperial Japanese Army. Still, many LDP legislators were apprehensive that Mr Murayama's wish to have such a Diet resolution adopted could eventually reignite the dispute over Emperor Showa's wartime responsibility or the lack thereof.

One lawmaker cited blood-type incompatibility in speaking about differences in the historical perceptions of the LDP and SDPJ. He also likened the LDP-SDPJ coalition to marriage.

"You can marry someone whose blood type differs from yours, but you cannot give a blood transfusion to your partner," he said. Divisions in the opinions of the LDP and SDPJ became so sharp that the two parties found it nearly impossible to close their schism. The dispute ended in concessions on the part of SDPJ. The resolution in question was drafted by using language that included ambiguous phrases about Japan's war responsibility. Nonetheless, this did little to alleviate the discontent felt by many LDP legislators.

In principle, Diet resolutions are to be adopted unanimously. However, some opposition parties and a number of LDP members did not attend a vote on the disputed resolution. Only less than half of the lawmakers voted on the resolution in the House of Representatives assembly hall. Mr Abe, then a Lower House member serving his first term, was not seen there. Nor was the current Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who was a middle-ranking Lower House member at that time.

Faced with his unsuccessful endeavour, Mr Murayama shifted his tactics to preparing a statement that he could release as prime minister. Drafting and delivering such a statement only required an agreement to be formed among his Cabinet members.

On Aug 15, 1995, the Murayama statement was finalised at a Cabinet meeting whose attendees included ministers from the LDP, to mark the 50th anniversary of the war's end. "If the statement was scrapped, the Cabinet could begin to fall," a Cabinet member from the LDP said. Therefore, he did not raise objections to the statement.

Today, he recalls how he felt at that time, saying: "The historical perception issue should never be allowed to drag on. I wanted it to be resolved once and for all."

Mr Murayama stepped down as prime minister five months after his Cabinet adopted the statement. The release of the statement was one of a handful of accomplishments achieved by the Murayama government, which was marked by a low popularity rating and a succession of confused incidents.

The Murayama statement acknowledged "a mistaken national policy" carried out by Japan in the past, while also expressing "deep remorse" and "a heartfelt apology" for its "colonial rule and acts of aggression".

The statement was accepted by China, South Korea and the United States.

The Murayama statement, a result of taxing efforts by Mr Murayama's administration, was later inherited by all his successors as prime minister, including LDP leaders. The statement was eventually established as the official view of the Japanese government.

Twelve years before the Murayama statement, then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was asked to answer a question at a Diet session over how he perceived World War II. "(Japan's wartime conduct) has been internationally acknowledged as an act of aggression. We would like to accept such criticism," he told the session. He had served as a commissioned officer in the wartime Imperial Japanese Navy.

The Murayama statement can be regarded as a compromise between the opinions of conservative and liberal forces.

A prime minister needs to possess a considerable amount of precise knowledge about history and use highly careful language if he hopes to use his own language to state how he perceives history, instead of borrowing words and phrases from the Murayama statement.

A prime minister is bound to draw angry reactions from China and South Korea if he makes careless remarks in his statement. If he clearly states he will inherit the Murayama statement, he will be able to avoid creating unnecessary misunderstanding among people and causing turmoil in Japan's external relations.

Still, some conservative forces persist in resenting the Murayama statement. It is difficult to explain the reason behind their sentiment to those unfamiliar with Japanese politics.

Is it unreasonable to liken their feelings to how Americans would respond if their president issued a statement to apologise for the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II? Although an analogy of that nature would anger conservative forces in the United States, it would be internationally acknowledged as reasonable.

However, it should be noted that the Murayama statement was unable to lay the historical perception dispute to rest. One reason behind this was that many political leaders in China and South Korea used the anti-Japan sentiment of their people as a tool to boost their own administrations. These leaders included then Chinese President Jiang Zemin and then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak.

The Japan-South Korea agreements signed 50 years ago over World War II-related claims and economic assistance incorporated a clause that stated the issue of Japanese compensation to South Korea had been resolved "completely and finally". However, some circles in South Korea are seeking to bring up the compensation issue again based on Japanese apologies offered in the past.

This marks the 70th year since the end of World War II. China is trying, with great zeal, to arouse anti-Japan sentiment in all parts of the world, while South Korea is seeking to take advantage of the Chinese move.

The international situation has greatly changed from 1995, when the Murayama statement was released. China has grown into a major power that can overwhelm Japan economically. Its gross domestic product was about one-seventh of Japan's GDP at that time. A considerable number of Japanese have been alarmed by China's great military might.

Japanese have become sick and tired of Chinese and South Koreans who demand this country offer an apology over the history issue. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken in January to February, more than 80 per cent of those surveyed said Japan's successive prime ministers have sufficiently apologised to China and South Korea.

Prime Minister Abe regards the current state of affairs as "a good opportunity" to address the history issue. He believes Japan's apology offered through the Murayama statement has wounded the pride of its people. Despite having said he would inherit his predecessor's statement "as a whole", the Prime Minister has shown himself to be ready and willing to risk issuing a new statement to overcome the problem once and for all.

However, there is little cause for optimism in this respect. If his personal thoughts and beliefs are brought to the fore, the Abe statement would be tinged with a great measure of conservatism. What is bound to ensue is more than angry reactions from China and South Korea. A matter of great concern in this respect is how the United States will respond to such a statement.

In 2013, Mr Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where those enshrined include Class-A war criminals, did much to "disappoint" the US administration. Admittedly, there seems to be a lack of personal chemistry between Mr Abe and such a politically liberal US President as Mr Barack Obama. If Mr Abe's statement is phrased in a manner that would disappoint the US government, however, it could worsen Japan-US ties and adversely affect Japan's external relations and national security. There would be no point in issuing the new statement if it left people to say: "It would have been better off had the statement not been released."

What is needed in this respect is for Japan to fully consider its wartime errors as it relates itself to the rest of the world. Doing so will ensure our nation is awarded greater credit from other nations for its readiness to play a role in cementing global peace and stability. It is vital for the Prime Minister to pay fully strategic and careful attention to the wording of the statement he is prepared to draft, an indispensable task if his statement is to provide a good opportunity to sweep away the view that he is a historical revisionist who denies Japan committed acts of aggression.