License article

Japan must seek forgiveness to gain trust

A China-Japan war that seemed impossible at the turn of the century, when I was living in Tokyo, has moved past being improbable  to become believable. Chinese and Japanese heavily mistrust each other and their intertwined economies have begun to delink from each other in trade and investment. The unsettled, tense state of relations in east Asia has many causes.

 The China-US relationship is the most important geopolitical dynamic of our time. Its primary characteristic is strategic long-term distrust, notwithstanding many shared global interests. China will vigorously contest any US effort to assert indefinite dominance in east Asia, with potentially grave risks involved in such a clash of wills between the relatively rising and declining powers. Can Washington be persuaded to cede reasonable strategic space to Beijing without tipping over into self-defeating appeasement?

 This is further complicated with the existence of territorial disputes that could become flash points to armed conflict which no one wants, all would be damaged by, but whose escalation dynamics could prove unstoppable. Like the rising and expansionist Japan in the interwar period of the last century, a rising and increasingly more powerful China has been engaged in various probing manoeuvres against several countries in the region, in the process testing not just their resolve but also the reliability and limits of their alliance with Washington.

As the Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan concludes in her magisterial book The War that Ended Peace, ‘‘there are always choices’’. The sensible strategy would be to refer all territorial disputes to the World Court, which would likely produce both losses and gains for most players. Unfortunately, history’s crossroads are rarely marked by the choice of sensible paths to follow.

East Asian countries still live in the shadow of the yet-to-be exorcised ghosts of Japan’s militaristic history, the persisting textbook controversies, and the manner in which periodic expressions of remorse and apology for past aggressions and atrocities are undermined by qualifying and shuffling back from those expressions. Neighbours and friendly international observers remain confused and unconvinced about the sincerity of Japan’s remorse.

The best known apology was by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War on   August 15, 1995. He expressed ‘‘deep remorse’’, ‘‘heartfelt apology’’ and ‘‘profound mourning for all victims’’ of Japan’s ‘‘colonial rule and aggression’’. The effect of the powerful statement was undermined when the parliament insisted it expressed Murayama’s personal feelings. A milder No War Resolution without apology was supported by a mere  26 per cent of Diet members, while  47 per cent opposed it.


Against this backdrop, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by the prime minister add fuel to an already volatile situation. Every country honours its war dead and no country would begrudge Japan doing the same. But enshrining the worst war criminals in Yasukuni made visiting it officially extremely problematical. Adding to the depth of the offence is the nearby Yushukan war museum which seems to support the revisionist view of the 1931-45 history and glorify Japan’s imperial rule.

The counterpart is Germany’s success in integrating into the post-1945 European order. In an image still considered an icon of historical reconciliation, on December 7, 1970, West German chancellor Willy Brandt visited the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 and, apparently spontaneously, dropped to his knees in silent reflection, penitence and atonement on behalf of Germans past and present. Many were deeply moved by this profound gesture of apology, and Germans and the victims of Nazi atrocities alike could begin the long process of healing.

Brandt later explained: ‘‘On the abyss of German history and carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them.’’ His successor as chancellor of united Germany, Gerhard Schroder, dedicating Willy Brandt Square in Warsaw on December  6, 2000, said the gesture had become an eternal symbol of acknowledging the past and accepting the obligation flowing from it for reconciliation and a common future.

There is scope today for as dramatic, moving and memorable a gesture in east Asia by Japan. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial commemorates the 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese killed by soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army in six weeks beginning on December  13, 1937. It is very effective in conveying the reality and horror of the massacre and achieves an emotional impact comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This has not prevented  revisionists from claiming that the incident has been exaggerated or even fabricated to malign Japan. A visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, negotiated in advance between Beijing and Tokyo, would be a game changer in Japan’s relations with all regional countries. A fulsome apology delivered with sincere contrition in Nanjing might even ease Abe’s goal of shifting Japan towards being a ‘‘normal’’ country in foreign policy and defence.

Neighbours worry about Japan’s potential for militarism because of its unconvincing efforts to shake off the ghosts of history. If sufficiently reassured  Japan has come to terms with its past, the Yasukuni controversy has been permanently put to rest, and history textbooks will teach future generations the full and true story of Japan’s misdeeds in the 1930s and 1940s, all south-east and east Asian neighbours could relax and focus on the radically different Japan of today.

 Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford school of public policy, Australian National University.