RPI Visiting Scholar Bhubhindar Singh: Japan’s Global Image Blemished by History

RPI Visiting Scholar Bhubhindar Singh: Japan’s Global Image Blemished by History

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a State Dinner during Abe's April  2015 visit to the United States (Source: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a State Dinner during Abe’s April 2015 visit to the United States (Source: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States at the end of April was a resounding success overall. One of the main highlights of the five-day visit was the signing of the new US-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation. The defense guidelines, as David Shear, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, insisted are not a revision of the 1997 version but signaled a new phase in US-Japan defense cooperation. The new guidelines introduced a whole-of-government coordination on bilateral issues to ensure a more effective alliance coordination mechanism; authorized Japan to engage in missions to defend the United States and other friendly countries even when Japan is not under attack (known as collective self-defense); expanded bilateral defense cooperation from a regional to global level; and finally, included new areas of defense cooperation relevant to the current strategic environment, such as, cyber and space.

The introduction of the new defense guidelines is a positive development in three ways; reinforced the already strong defense relationship between the United States and Japan; strengthened the deterrence effect against the key strategic challenges facing both states; and elevated Japanese security policy expansion to the global level. This is a positive development and there is no reason to doubt Japan’s intentions.

Japan’s Image Problem

The above positive development in Japanese security role is dampened by Japan’s image problem in East Asia. Insincerity of Japan’s intentions continues to blemish Japan’s largely positive image in the region. This may be surprising in light of the critical role Japan has played in the economic development of the region through its extensive trade and investment strategies that resulted in the impressive East Asian economic miracle. Japan has been a generous aid provider to East Asia and beyond, and has repeatedly been a proactive leader in the anti-nuclear and disarmament movements at the global level.

It is no surprise that the source of the negative image lies in the unresolved debates surrounding Japan’s colonial past. This is frustrating and puzzling for those both within and outside of Japan. For those outside Japan, it is puzzling because East Asia continues to debate on history matters while Europe has moved forward. For those within Japan, this is puzzling because this issue continues to exist even when Japan, including the Emperor, has apologized repeatedly, for its wrongdoings.

The puzzlement expressed by both camps is understandable. The unresolved events of that bitter past continue to exist even in 2015 as the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. This hamper East Asia’s regional integration and community-building efforts, Moreover, this negative image is not in the national interest of Japan – a country that has a vibrant democracy and is seeking to assume global responsibilities in security affairs.

To be sure, the unresolved history has been deliberately kept alive by the political leadership in China and South Korea, as Japan serves as the key ‘other’ in the formation of Chinese and South Korean national identities. However, the problem lies in Japan as well. There is inconsistency in the way Japan expresses its remorse or regret of its past behavior. While apologies have been made, there have also been several attempts by individuals, including Prime Minister Abe himself, to either retract the apologies or question the dominant interpretation of the historical events. The existence of the Yushukan museum located within the privately run Yasukuni Shrine compound is a constant institutional reminder to others of Japan’s lack of insincerity.

Abe’s History Statement

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a great opportunity to change this situation on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. He is a strong leader with relatively high popularity rate domestically, a pragmatist and has offered a much-needed vision for Japan’s future in the economic, political and security domains. Abe’s decision to issue a new history statement to mark the 70th anniversary should be commended.

However, three key points are important in preparing the statement. These are related to the content, form and location.

Content of the history statement matters. Prime Minister Abe clearly stated that he accepts the previous Kono and Murayama statements. What he would like to do is not to repeat these statements but issue a forward-looking one. On the 70th anniversary, the Prime Minister should repeat the points in the previous statements and go further. He should clearly expressed Japan’s apology, use the word aggression, name the countries that were inflicted by Japan’s colonial rule and declare Japan’s intention to never repeat such heinous acts.

The way the history statement is delivered also matters. In his address to the joint session of the Congress, Abe expressed heartfelt repentance in recognition to the many American lives lost fighting against Japan. His message delivered in an energetic and honest manner was received very positively by the audience, as indicated by the constant interruption by applause and standing ovations. Abe should issue the history statement to the Asian audience with the same level of energy and honesty. Perhaps, the Prime Minister could read a few lines of the apology in Chinese and Korean – as he did in English to the American crowd.

Finally, where the much-awaited history statement is delivered is also critical. For a durable impact, the Prime Minister should consider issuing the statement outside Japan. A Southeast Asian capital would be advisable but Japan should also consider Seoul. The Seoul option may sound preposterous due to the current state of the bilateral relations. However, it is important to note that the dismal bilateral relationship is taking a turn for the better. Dialogue in various areas and levels having resumed – the most notable being the security dialogue in April 2015. Both are democracies, quasi-allies of the United States and have shared interests and vision for the region. If dialogue between the two states continues, a bilateral summit between Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Park Geun-hye sometime this year is not inconceivable. This will be an appropriate time to issue the history statement.

Japan’s arrival at the global strategic stage has both positive and negative sides. While the widening security contribution should be supported, this development is perceived with some caution by its neighboring states. The manner in which Abe delivers the history statement has the ability to reconstruct Japan’s role in the region and beyond to be a positive contributor to regional peace and stability.

Bhubhindar Singh is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is presently based at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University on a Fulbright Fellowship.