Commentary on the Prime Minister’s Statement on the 70th Anniversary of the End of WWII
On August 14th of this year, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a cabinet-approved statement. The statement includes words such as “aggression,” “colonial rule,” and “reflection,” being conscious of public opinion both at home and abroad. However, these words and phrases only appear within indirect references to statements by past prime ministers and explanations of Japan’s post-WWII position, and not as Prime Minister Abe’s own words. Moreover, because the statement leaves the subjects of “aggression” and “colonial rule” ambiguous, and because it does not specify that the war was induced by Japanese aggression, it neither identifies who exactly should “reflect,” nor even addresses the issue of responsibility. As scholars engaged in historical research, we cannot refrain from raising the following three points concerning the historical facts and the historical consciousness revealed in this statement.
The first regards modern Japan’s approach to international relations. While the Prime Minister’s statement sees 19th-century Japan as a state that successfully defended its independence by rapidly modernizing in response to the perceived threat of European colonialism, it ignores the fact that it did so by violating the sovereignty of Korea and colonizing Taiwan. Furthermore, the claim that the Russo-Japanese war “gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule” at the beginning of the 20th century is a completely biased assessment. On the contrary, the Russo-Japanese war was first and foremost a battle between Russia and Japan for supremacy over Manchuria and other parts of northeastern China, as well as the Korean peninsula. This is attested to by the fact that these regions constituted the main battlefields of the war. In other words, the war was fueled by imperialist ambitions, which allowed Japan to continually violate the rights of peoples who happened to live in the countries caught in the fighting. For example, during the Russo-Japanese war, Japan ignored Korea’s declaration of neutrality and, upon taking control of Seoul, imposed the asymmetrical Japan-Korea Treaty. By absolutely avoiding any reference to these historical facts, the Prime Minister’s statement undermines the notion that Japan bears responsibility for colonial rule, and creates the impression that the blame ultimately lies with the West.
Second, the statement reveals a problematic understanding of the historical circumstances of World War II. The Prime Minister constructs a historical understanding that justifies Japan’s actions by portraying Japan as a passive victim of the West’s economic blocs after the Great Depression, which left the country severely damaged and politically isolated. According to the Prime Minister, Japan was left with no choice but to “overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force” during a time when “its domestic political system could not serve as a brake to stop such attempts.” Just as with the Russo-Japanese war, this narrative seeks to shift focus away from the fact of Japanese aggression on the Asian continent and further obscure the subject of responsibility.
Third, the statement’s lack of any sense of subjectivity or responsibility with regard to Japan’s role in the colonial rule and its role as perpetrator of war crimes must be highlighted. The statement avoids any direct mention of the “comfort women” issue, and instead glosses over the matter by briefly mentioning the harm caused to women in general by the war. Expressed this way, the “comfort women” issue is treated as though it were simply a general problem in war; this must be seen as an attempt to further evade the question of Japan’s specific responsibility for the issue. Elsewhere, the statement uses inclusive expressions, such as “the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad,” to disguise the relationship between perpetrator and victim. No mention is made of instances such as forced labor of Chinese and Koreans, the massive killing of prisoners of war as well as civilians, and the turmoil and tragedy of mass evacuations. These are among the colonial and wartime transgressions, the responsibility for which Japan ought to accept and hand down to the future. Not only does the Prime Minister’s statement fail to display the sincere attitude toward responsibility for the war that the international community expects Japan to adopt, but it is also completely divorced from the historical reality that numerous historical studies have uncovered.
As symbolized in the above three points, the Prime Minister’s address is pervaded by a historical self-righteousness typical of the indiscretion Abe and the rest of the Japanese government display toward the international community. Worse, there is also reason to worry that the contents of the speech could become the basis for further interference in educational curricula and teaching, from elementary to high school. Furthermore, by trumpeting “our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come” as the generations “who have nothing to do with that war,” the speech appears to call for the end of apologies. Refusing to acknowledge the history of violence and failing to unequivocally confront historical facts —instead depending on the “tolerance” of victimized peoples and their nations—is the tyranny of aggressors and aggressor nations. As the generation that experienced the war continues to diminish, we firmly resolve to continue facing history squarely, grounded in the results of accumulated historical research. At the same time, we strongly wish to see the government correct the understanding of history displayed in this speech and take the initiative to sincerely commit itself to “inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.”
September 14, 2015
Committee of the Historical Science Society of Japan
(English translation on October 26, 2015)