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Shinzo Abe and the revisionists’ denial of ‘aggression’

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In Brief

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama formally expressed his ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology for Japan’s mistaken national policy’, which, ‘through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering’ in Asia.

At a set of Diet Committee meetings earlier this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refused to accept the Murayama Statement in totality.


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He acknowledged that portion of the statement which referred to the damage caused by Japan in Asia but disregarded the references to colonial rule and aggression. ‘Invasion’, he said, was a term that had not yet been defined academically and internationally, and as a politician he would not pry into such debates.

When forced to revisit this selective interpretation at a Japan National Press Club debate on 21 July, he grudgingly conceded that Japan had conducted colonial domination or military aggression but then tortuously added he was not in a position to define what those actions constituted.

Getting Abe to admit that imperial Japan committed aggression in Asia is like pulling teeth.

It is an article of faith within revisionist and ultranationalist circles in Japan that Tokyo waged wars of self-defence, not aggression, during the 1930s and 1940s. These wars were supposedly motivated by legitimate concerns for its pre-eminent rights and interests on the Asian continent. While the ultranationalists can admit that along the way imperial Japan committed atrocities they argue that the framing of such atrocities, and the larger war-time policies, as exceptional or peculiarly criminal is hypocritical and false. In particular, they view the coercive recruitment and management of ‘comfort women’ as ‘voluntary’ — an unfortunate collateral outcome of this tragic period and something for which the Government of Japan should express remorse but not official responsibility. Clearly, these claims grossly minimise the breadth and depth of Japanese atrocities in Asia and continue to cause emotional harm to the survivors of abuse.

However, Prime Minister Abe’s obfuscations on the definition of ‘aggression’ are not entirely without basis.

At the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the highest-ranking Japanese defendants were convicted of waging ‘wars of aggression’ to ‘secure the complete domination of East Asia and the Pacific Indian Oceans and their adjoining countries and neighboring islands’. But waging such wars was not a crime under prevailing international law and an agreed-upon consensus — let alone definition — of ‘aggressive war’ did not exist at the time. As the acclaimed scholar of post-war Japan, John Dower, has noted, Imperial Japan was punished for acts that were somehow deemed to be criminal even though they were not yet established as illegal. The Tribunal itself was a ‘huge-scale theatrical production’, which, as a senior American official observed, employed the ‘hocus-pocus of judicial procedure’ without guaranteeing its protections.

The justice in Tokyo was politically motivated. A different standard of accountability governed Emperor Hirohito, who was exonerated of all war responsibility prior to the sitting of the Tribunal. The Americans expunged any further implication of his role in the Japanese government’s actions during the 1930s and 1940s in trial proceedings. In exchange, the emperor complied with his occupier’s demand and issued an Imperial Rescript on New Years Day 1946 that repudiated his pretense to divine descent. That pretense had hitherto been the basis of pre-war emperor worship and a fount for ultra-nationalist mobilisation.

But had justice been dispensed blind of bias and persuasion, the emperor would surely have been found guilty of executive and command responsibility for Japan’s actions during the Pacific War.

Instead, victor’s justice was served up at the Tokyo Tribunal in 1948 and the emperor — rather than be forced to abdicate — retained his place in Japanese society. This makes Japanese revisionists as much a beneficiary of the politically manufactured outcome of the trial as they were a victim of its tarnished standard of jurisprudence.

Moreover, by ratifying the San Francisco Treaty in 1952, the Japanese government formally ‘accept[ed] the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and of other Allied War Crimes Courts both within and outside Japan …’ that it had waged unprovoked war and aggressive war. By re-opening the definition of ‘aggression’, Abe is in fact questioning an important pillar of the San Francisco Treaty and, therefore, the system that has facilitated his country’s post-war rise.

Prime Minister Abe traces his personal lineage to the economic czar of war-time Manchuria (and future prime minister) Kishi Nobusuke, and his political lineage to the Edo period domain of Choshu and its pioneering traditions of national reform, revivalism and restoration constructed around the identity of a timeless Japanese nation. He has promised to slough off the humiliation (a recurrent theme in modern Japanese history) of the post-war constitution that America authored and imposed. As the prime minister embarks in undue haste on this self-appointed ‘historical mission’, he would be well-advised to stay clear of tampering with the verdict of World War II.

Japan can and should become a more ‘normal’ nation; it can and should appropriate a wider range of individual and collective self-defence capabilities; it can and should shed the legacy of those aspects of the Occupation that it deems domestically demeaning. It cannot, however, revise or reinterpret that aspect of its militarised past which it has formally accepted and is bound by treaty and duty to observe. ‘Escaping the postwar regime’ must not come at the expense of throwing off the shackles of wartime guilt.

Sourabh Gupta is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., Washington, DC.

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