Abe Statement on the 70th Anniversary WWII’s End: A Missed Opportunity

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave his big speech on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II last Friday. There has been a torrent of comment, much of pretty positive. Jennifer Lind made the good points that a speech like this would have been remarkable by almost any other head of state/government, and that no other imperialists in Asia’s past are lining up to apologize (ouch). So, I agree, it is pretty remarkable compared to the usual nationalist bluster we expect from heads of state and government on such occasions (think Putin the thug).

But it still ducked a lot, and it pretty clearly played up the very wrong, very revisionist WWII ‘victim narrative’ in Japan. That is, that Japan was a victim in the war, because of the atom bomb drop, and/or that its people were dragged into the war by a gang of militarists who didn’t represent the nation. Those interpretations are generous to say the least. Pretty hard to square kamikaze raids and ritual suicide with that.

The following comments were originally written for the Nelson Report. I thank Chris for soliciting me.


“Abe didn’t really say anything remarkable. This won’t lead to a regional breakthrough. He was clearly speaking to his domestic audience and Japan’s former opponents simultaneously, which is why the language is so bland and diplomatic, both exculpatory and regretful at the same time.

A few things leapt out at me:

1. The context provided was that Japan’s early imperial efforts were somehow anti-colonial. For example, colonized people everywhere were apparently thrilled that Japan defeated Russia in 1905. That is pretty self-serving, not to mention inaccurate. The idea that Japan’s use of force in the first half of the twentieth century was to prevent Western domination of East Asia has a been a right-wing historiographic trope in Japan for awhile. But it is far more accurate to say that Japan was mimicking what is saw the West doing in places like India and Africa. There was nothing ‘liberatory’ about Japan’s conflicts, especially in Northeast Asia were Western domination was not a real threat. Japan was empire-building, just like Western states a generation earlier, and it would help a lot if Japanese conservatives would simply admit this.

2. Little agency is admitted. Colonialism and the Pacific War just seem to happen. So “Japan took the wrong turn,” which makes it sound like Japanese decision-makers didn’t actually purposefully and extensively plan the imperial venture over decades, complete with blatantly aggressively moves like Pearl Harbor. This is another rightist historiographic chestnut – that war was someone forced on Japan or that it just came about as a natural outcome of international politics.

3. There wasn’t much on the specifics of the Army’s harshness toward the peoples it overran – no mention of Nanjing, Unit 731, the comfort women system (which was empire-wide, not just in Korea), Bataan, and so on. It’s pretty revealing of the gap between Japan and the rest of the world on this that atom bomb drop was mentioned twice, while the most the comfort women got was an oblique: “women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured.” There’s a lot on how Japan suffered in the war, without the obvious admission that Japan brought this on itself or that Japan’s leaders could have stopped the 1945 bombing campaign by surrendering much earlier.

Good grief. All this kinda makes you wonder what the Japanese put in their textbooks…

4. This won’t do regionally. The ROK and China won’t accept it. There’s far too much justification, avoidance, and self-pity. It’s too bad. This is likely the highest profile chance Abe will get to change the regional dynamic on Japan and the Empire, and he blew it. But I guess that’s just who he is. He really believes this stuff, it seems. Given that China and North Korea are not democracies, he won’t face much critical blowback. He can always point to their worse denialism and brutality. But for democratic partners, most obviously South Korea, this statement will do nothing to relieve the moral pressure Japan faces on history. A Park-Abe summit likely won’t happen, and I bet the South Korean reaction tomorrow morning will be tough.

All in all, a mixed effort that will not change anything regionally. A missed opportunity.

Filed under: History, Japan, World War II

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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