The history issue-What Japan can and should do

  • Yuki Tatsumi
  • Senior Research Fellow
    Yuki Tatsumi
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security
The Asia-Pacific Security Summit, commonly called the "Shangri-La Dialogue," was held in Singapore between May 31 and June 2, 2013. This forum has been organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank, since 2002. It is well-known for the participation of many influential figures, including defense ministers, high-ranking military officers and think-tank researchers in the Asia-Pacific region, including the United States, every year. As in past meetings, this year's conference, the 12th meeting since its inauguration, was attended by a strong lineup of speakers, including the Singaporean defense minister as the host country's representative, and defense ministers from the US, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor, as well as the Prime Minister of Vietnam. As European attendees have been increasing, defense ministers from the UK and France and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also attended this year.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera joined from Japan, speaking in one of the plenary sessions titled "Defending National Interests; Preventing Conflict." In his speech, Mr. Onodera mentioned recent political developments in Japan, including a review of the National Defense Program Guidelines, an increase in the defense budget, legislative developments in establishing a national security council, changes in legal interpretation for enabling Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense and the discussion over constitutional reform. He further stated: "Some say that Japan is tilting toward the 'right' because of these initiatives. Moreover, we sometimes hear that Japan is abandoning its identity as a 'peace-loving nation' and is attempting to challenge the existing international order. However, these views are a total misperception. The aim of the aforementioned initiatives is to enable Japan to make a more proactive and creative contribution toward regional security." "These efforts are crucial in pursuit of our national interest, which is in the maintenance and strengthening of an international order based on fundamental values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law."

In addition, indirectly referring to the comment made by Mr. Hashimoto, a mayor of Osaka city, with respect to the so-called "comfort women" in such a way that "a leader of Japanese opposition party ... caused misunderstanding and mistrust to Japan's neighboring countries by repeatedly making inappropriate remarks about past history of Japan," Mr. Onodera continued to state that: "let me assure you, the Abe administration never commits to such remarks or recognition of history. In the past, Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Consecutive Japanese governments have humbly acknowledged such historical facts, expressed deep remorse and genuine apologies. Prime Minister Abe has also embraced the same position, which is shared by all Cabinet Ministers, including myself. Based on such recognition, we would like to look to the future and promote international cooperation with relevant countries."

His speech was highly appreciated by the participants of the conference. Because he plainly refuted the argument that recent actions taken by the Abe administration in relation to the Japan's security policy lead to "Japan's rightward tilt," as misunderstanding. He also clearly explained that "neither the Japanese government nor Prime Minister Abe agrees" inappropriate remarks made by some of the Japanese politicians although he refrained from referring to the individual politicians' names. Instead, he unequivocally stated the "fact" that the successive Japanese governments repeatedly expressed "remorse and apologies" in relation to the problems in the wartime history; and, articulated the types of security cooperation Japan is aiming to provide for the security of the Asia-Pacific region.

It is not easy for Japanese to speak about the history issue, particularly about the problems with Japan's colonial rule before WWII and military actions in China, Korea and other Asian countries during WWII. It is especially difficult to face criticisms like "Japan has never offered an apology (or offered only insincere apologies)" and "Japan should pay state compensation to individual war victims as Germany did." We tend to react emotionally by saying, for example, "Japan has repeatedly apologized," "it was not only the Japanese military but also other nations' militaries that committed wrongdoings during the war," "what about what the US military did in Japan under the control of GHQ?", etc. In the last few months many Japanese politicians have made a variety of remarks concerning the history issue, which have been widely published by mass media. Accordingly, the image that "Japan is rapidly tilting toward the right" is spreading abroad, resulting in its critical publication in overseas media, prompting emotional responses in Japan. So, I am seeing a continuous negative spiral of overseas criticisms and domestic emotional reactions.

There is no small number of unfounded arguments being made abroad about Japan's wartime responsibility, particularly "Japan's responsibility for war crimes during WWII." We tend to react emotionally to such baseless criticisms because such erroneous arguments simply irritate us. However, the more emotional our reactions, the more it works against us. What we should do is explain cool-headedly to people who do not have a proper understanding of the measures already undertaken by the Japanese government to apologize, and to ask them: "If you say that Japan has not apologized, what else do you think Japan should do on top of the measures it has already taken to be acknowledged as have sincerely apologized?" This is a more effective way to discuss Japan's wartime responsibility. The problem in this regard is to what extent each of us is aware of the past measures Japan has undertaken in order to make an intelligent rebuttal.

There's the issue of so-called "comfort women" during WWII, for example. The jury is still out as to "whether women were forced to work as sex slaves" or "whether the Japanese authorities were officially involved in forcing them into servitude." This quickly becomes an emotional discussion. Many people have different views on this issue. Some may say that there is no convincing reason why only Japan is particularly criticized over "comfort women" because women in similar roles can be found around any country's army in wartime; while others may argue that it is inappropriate to deal with past wartime events with today's standards because at that time in Japan it was not unusual for poor parents to sell their daughters into prostitution to "reduce the number of mouths" they had to feed. Nonetheless, whatever positions we take, we should have at least the minimum level of knowledge about the facts surrounding the issue. Where do we find such factual information? Looking around, I found the following article:

This article includes an interview with Professor Yasuaki Onuma, Professor Emeritus of the University of Tokyo, an expert in international law. He was involved in the Asian Women's Fund as a director of a foundation which compensates women who worked as "comfort women" in Asian countries as well as the Netherlands. This article contains factual information that we should all know no matter what position we take, including what Japan has done so far for these women and what Japan has failed to do. The article was written to facilitate an easy understanding of the disputatious points surrounding the issue of "comfort women" in the countries involved.

With regard to past apologies of the Japanese government, I also found this essay informative:

Dr. Jun-ichiro Shoji, the author of this essay, is a researcher and the director of the Center for Military History of the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS). The short essay he wrote in February 2013 focuses on official statements made by Japanese prime ministers, including "Statement by PM Murayama" in 1995, "Statement by PM Koizumi" in 2005 and "Statement by PM Kan" in 2010, and explains in plain terms the Japanese government's position on recognizing its wartime history.

Regrettably, the level-headed articles and essays like these have never appeared in major Japanese media. The interview with Professor Onuma was published as an internet article in "Yahoo! News." You will not find Dr. Shoji's essay without visiting the NIDS website. I have to confess that I did not know about his essay until I was told by a retired senior Self-Defense Force officer to whom I owe a great deal. Needless to say, these article and essay have not been translated into other languages. So there is no way for overseas media to know that "some experts in Japan look at the issue in a cool and calm manner."

When we Japanese communicate anything about the history issue, things go bad if we argue emotionally, leading only to fruitless controversy. What we should do instead is to discuss the views and opinions of experts well-grounded in the kinds of facts mentioned above, and to learn the facts ourselves to better enable us to make the right arguments.

Minister Onodera's speech in Singapore and the audience's appreciation for it remind me of the importance of "arguing our country's position while cool-headedly conveying the facts."

[1] "Japan is Back," address delivered by Shinzo Abe at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, DC on February 22, 2013,

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