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US to Japan, South Korea: stop arguing and get on with it

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In Brief

On 6 March, the Obama administration sent a strong message to Japan and South Korea to work out their differences over history. Speaking on Japanese television, US Ambassador to Tokyo Caroline Kennedy said, ‘I’m sure President Obama will be very, very happy with the progress they will make’.


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The strong American reaction came in the wake of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which also triggered condemnation from both Seoul and Beijing. After Abe’s 26 December 2013 visit, Ambassador Kennedy released a public statement expressing ‘disappointment’.

While the Obama administration should be congratulated for taking notice of the festering East Asian history issue, its ‘stop arguing and get on with it’ approach seems to assume that historical tiffs in Asia are purely a local issue — and that the United States bears no responsibility for unresolved problems stemming from the region’s complicated past.

The reality is that Abe and many other nationalists who seek to downplay Japanese wrongdoing during World War II are in positions of power today because the United States pursued policies during the Cold War that encouraged the return to public office of officials who had played active roles in Japan’s expansion onto the Asian mainland.

With regard to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, at first glance the problem of official visits by Japanese prime ministers seems to be connected to the secret enshrinement in 1978 of the souls of 14 Class-A war criminals, including that of Iwane Matsui, commander of Japanese forces in Nanking at the time of the 1937 massacre. Matsui was convicted of war crimes and executed in 1948 along with six other Class-A war criminals. But Yasukuni would not be a controversial issue today had the United States chosen to object to its rise from former centre of Japan’s wartime emperor-centred cult to post-war prominence.

In defiance of Japan’s post-war constitution, which separates church and state, Yasukuni developed a close relationship with the Japanese government during the 1950s. Health and Welfare Ministry officials provided the shrine with records of Japanese soldiers and sailors killed in World War II. It should be remembered that in 1945 a mere 300,000 war dead had been consecrated; at present the shrine is home to 2.42 million, making Yasukuni the focal point of war memory for millions of Japanese families.

But it is not so much the enshrinement of the war dead’s souls that makes Yasukuni an object of foreign criticism. Rather, it is the view of history propagated at the Yushukan Museum attached to the shrine that has raised eyebrows. Through Yushukan, the shrine portrays Japan as a victim of Western imperialism and justifies Japanese military expansion on the Asian mainland as the liberation of Asians from that same yoke — a view that is shared by conservative nationalists, including by some members of Abe’s inner circle.

The question that needs to be asked is why Abe thinks that he can count on the United States to look the other way while he makes an official visit to such a facility. The answer may be that Abe remembers US policies that Washington has chosen to forget. After all, Washington did not ask any questions of Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi — about his past as wartime cabinet minister — when it supported his candidacy for the premiership in 1957. Kishi served as prime minister for three years in spite of having spent time in jail as a Class-A war crimes suspect during the US-led post-war occupation of Japan.

Other Cold War US policies might also encourage Abe to think that Japanese conservatives can count on support for a more assertive, nationalist Japan — especially at a time when China’s rise is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. For example, the US unwaveringly supports the Japanese government’s contention that all claims against Japan had been settled by the San Francisco Peace Treaty and subsequent international agreements. And this is partly why tens of thousands of forced labourers, including Korean and other Asian ‘comfort women’, are still uncompensated. No US government saw it in its interest to encourage Japanese political leaders to follow the example of Germany, which passed new legislation to permit restitution for individual claimants — although it was also exempted from legal obligations to compensate victims of Nazi excesses.

The truly sad part of Japan’s history problem is that numerous public opinion polls have shown that the average Japanese believes that military expansion onto the Asian mainland was a mistake; that it brought terrible misfortune to Japan’s neighbours; and that the Japanese state has not done enough to express remorse. In other words, laws enabling compensation to Chinese, Korean and other survivors of forced labour would have reflected the will of the Japanese people.

So, is Ambassador Kennedy’s warning to Abe a sign of a sea change in US–Japan relations, heralding a desire on the part of US leaders to take an active role to promote regional reconciliation — or is it just a quick-fix strategy to get Japan and South Korea to kiss and make up so as to strengthen a military alliance aimed at countering China’s projection of military power into the Asia Pacific? If it is the former, then this is a time for congratulations. But if this is just a short-term tactic, then we should all fasten our seat belts and get ready for turbulent times. The lesson Germany can teach East Asia is that to reap the rewards of reconciliation, every country has to deal with negative aspects of its past — Japan, the Koreas, China, and yes, even the United States.

Andrew Horvat is a Japan-based writer and commentator and co-editor with Gebard Hielscher of ‘Sharing the Burden of the Past — legacies of War in Europe, America and Asia’.

7 responses to “US to Japan, South Korea: stop arguing and get on with it”

  1. The author of this post may be interested to know, if he doesn’t already,that Abe Shinzo’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, was the first Japanese prime minister to visit Australia, which he did less than a decade after he had been a jail-bird. It is inconceivable that a former member of Hitler’s government could have been invited to Australia only twelve years after World War Two ended. And an ex-Nazi could not have become West German chancellor, even if various ex-members of the Hitler Jugend attained prominent posts.

    • Thank you for your comment. I should clarify that it was not my intention to paint wartime Axis leaders with the same brush. There are significant differences between Japanese and German wartime leaders, their aims and methods. What I wished to point out is that in contrast to immediate postwar Europe where US Cold War policies greatly contributed to regional integration and a lasting peace, in East Asia, Washington “embraced the defeated,” declared them to be democratic and consequently failed to promote reconciliation between Japan and those areas of Asia (China and the Korean peninsula) where the greatest number of victims of wartime and colonial Japanese policies lived. We often accuse Japanese leaders of suffering from historical amnesia but it strikes me that this disease afflicts all of us equally.
      Andrew Horvat

      • ” immediate postwar Europe where US Cold War policies greatly contributed to regional integration”
        Europe is NOT just Western Europe. Actually, thanks to the US and the USSR there was a lot of deep and lasting DISintegration in Europe after 1945 , where the thousands year-old social,economic and political relations formed between the Western and the Eastern Europe got severely curtailed due to the super-power rivalries. So what kind of integration are we talking about here? A very partial one, at most.
        The US also did NOT promote any reconciliation between Germany and its EASTERN neighbours like Poland, where the Nazi death machine was actually located and were the most gruesome Nazi crimes were actually committed (it’s important to remember that France and other Nazi-occupied territories in the West were mostly spared those horrors). The US also did NOT object to many former Nazi officials filling up positions in the successive governments of the postwar West Germany. The US also did NOT object to the distorted and humiliating opinions about Slavic nations (Polish, Czech, Russian etc.) that the West German history handbooks were full of. It was actually to the benefit of the US interest to allow the postwar Germans to distance themselves from the Nazis by claiming that they (German people) were the victims of Hitler in the same way the other nations used to be (that was the interpretation of the Nazi past as espoused by Chancellor Adenauer – a staunch ally of the US), since it seemed to speed up the integration of West Germany with the US-led NATO bloc.
        It was only in the late 1960s where German social democrats (SPD) came to power and decided on their own and without American pressure to launch their Ostpolitik, which included serious and honest reconciliation efforts aimed at Eastern Europe, esp. then socialist Poland. Chancellor W. Brandt’s kneeling down in Warsaw in December 1970 and the creation of the Polish-German commission on history handbooks as early as in 1972 were NOT caused by any particular US policies or diplomatic pressure. The credit here goes almost entirely to the social-democratic government in Bonn and more open-minded socialist rulers of the 1970’s Poland (it’s important to notice it as the Bonn’s similar reconciliation efforts aimed at the socialist Czechoslovakia failed due to the obstinacy of the more conservative Czech communists).
        The reconciliation witnessed in Europe, esp. between Germany and its Eastern neighbours was not caused by any specific US policies, nor did it take place because of some “structural” reasons like common security interests – the Ostpolitik started well before the Cold Ward ended and was not significantly hindered even in the first half of the 1980s when the great power rivalries resurged once again.
        By the same token, the US cannot be blamed for the lack of any deep and lasting reconciliation in East Asia. The failures of Japan or other regional powers in this regard cannot be attributed to any malignant influence of America and should not be used as an excuse for the lack of any major success in this field.

      • ” There are significant differences between Japanese and German wartime leaders, their aims and methods. ”
        Really? How exactly are the Japanese ‘doctors’ from Unit 731 different from ‘doctor’ Menegele and his colleagues from Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau? In my opinion the sadists from Unit 731 were even more perverted than their German colleagues. Or, how were the Nazi policies of forced labour implemented in Eastern Europe different from those applied by the Imperial Japan in Korea, Burma and elsewhere? The differences seems to be only secondary.
        I’m aware that some apologists of the wartime Japan tend to dismiss any attempts to expose the similarities between the Imperial Japan and the Nazi Germany as far-fetched but those kind of comparisons are inescapable. And for good reason.

  2. The U.S. also granted immunity to Shiro Ishii and others connected with Japan’s chemical and biological weapons programs in China in order to get their research findings. Few Americans know the truth about their government’s role in this sordid bit of history.

    • I occasionally met Kishi in Tokyo years ago. He was then an affable octogenarian who had corralled most of the anti-communist Asian countries into a group that he ran on the fringes of the LDP. He had a certain charm about him. After all, he had displayed remarkable adaptability after Japan’s defeat.

      Perhaps comparisons with Nazis are inappropriate. But the Chinese and Koreans may differ on this point.

    • The pardon granted by the Truman administration to the butchers of Unit 731 has to rank among the most heinous war crimes of history. The coverup of this crime has been so thorough that most Americans just shrug when told about it. It is the equivalent of granting pardons to all nazis involved in human experiments in exchange for their data.
      As usual no apologies from the US government ever came forth and none will giving the political climate.

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