Marking seventy years since the end of World War II, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed “profound grief” on Friday for his country’s actions. While pointing to short comings in the statement, the Stanford scholars said the prime minister’s words represented a genuine effort to reflect on the past and provided opportunities to improve relations in the region.
The highly anticipated statement, issued on behalf of the Japanese cabinet, was closely followed by its East Asian neighbors who have raised concerns over Japan’s views of the wartime era.
Leaders of South Korea and China have said Japan has not apologized fully for crimes committed during WWII and each dispute historical narratives seen in the others’ textbooks, popular culture and other domains.
Advancing historical reconciliation in East Asia is a key research area of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. The center leads a research project, Divided Memories and Reconciliation, which has produced numerous articles and books, including a ground breaking comparative study of high school history textbooks in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.
In May 2014, the center convened an international conference “Pathways to Reconciliation” on historical issues, co-sponsored by the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, the governmental organization promoting Japan-China-South Korea trilateral cooperation.
Earlier this year, the Japan Program asked Stanford scholars to write their own version of the 70th anniversary statement as if they were the prime minister of Japan. The scholars’ statements were compiled into a report, published in May 2015.
Eight scholars contributed to the exercise in an effort “to understand the diversity of reasonable views on the issue of Japan’s responsibility for the cruel and violent war and Japan’s role in building a peaceful and prosperous world,” the introduction stated.
Themes that emerged in the report included a need for Abe to show heartfelt remorse about Japan’s actions during WWII and its desire to work toward a peaceful future.
Three noted Japan experts who contributed to that report offered their analysis of the prime minister’s statement issued yesterday in Tokyo.
Below are brief summaries of their analysis, you may click on each link to expand in full.
Duus recognizes that Abe’s statement offers a reiteration of the statements made by Prime Ministers Murayama and Koizumi by including four key words – aggression, colonial rule, apology and remorse. Unlike past statements, however, Abe’s begins by putting war in the historical context and offers a more explicit statement of the victims of the war, not only the three million Japanese but also citizens of China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. The statement can be viewed as “a small but important step toward a truce in the history wars that have raged in East Asia for the last three decades,” he says. However, Abe's attempt at reconciliation will have little effect if he does not rein in contrary actions by neo-nationalists in his own party.
Peter Duus is the William H. Bonsall Professor of Japanese History, emeritus; and a senior fellow, by courtesy, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Hoshi notes that Abe’s statement mentions past apologies expressed by the Japanese government, but has no explicit apology from the current administration. He says there are two surprising elements about the statement. The first is the length – it is much larger than predecessors Murayama and Koizumi at 1,664 words in English and 3,970 characters in Japanese. The second is the emphasis on history rather than on forward-looking components. He says it is commendable that Abe provided an expanded view of history. Hoshi notes that it is nearly impossible to satisfy everyone’s views in such a statement, as scholars witnessed firsthand when working on the Japan Program project.
Takeo Hoshi is the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Senior Fellow in Japanese Studies in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; a professor (by courtesy) of finance at the Graduate School of Business; and director of the Japan Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University.
Sneider says Abe’s statement must be judged on following criteria: that it is a valid effort to draw lessons from Japan’s wartime past and that it contributes to the improvement of relations in Northeast Asia. He says the statement advances these goals, but there remain a few caveats. Sneider says the version of history communicated “will not satisfy many people, including many historians,” but that it does move away from the idea that revisionist Japan was in a war of self-defense not aggression. To move Japan, China and South Korea toward reconciliation, the prime minister and his cabinet must embrace the spirit of the statement in full and open the door to convening a long-delayed trilateral summit.
Daniel Sneider is the associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University.