Japan-Korea relations after Abe’s war anniversary statement: Opportunity for a reset?

Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from remarks delivered at the Heritage Foundation’s event on “Assessing Japan-Republic of Korea relations after Prime Minister Abe’s anniversary statement” on August 18, 2015.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II was the latest, halting, complex, and problematic step in Japan’s longstanding attempt to deal with its troubled history – and with its resentful neighbors.

Despite its faults (more on that below), the statement could help ease tensions between Japan and Korea if handled well by both sides, and if the opportunity presented by the statement is wisely exploited. Despite the criticisms being leveled at it, the Abe Statement, unlike previous remarks by the Prime Minister, probably won’t make things worse between Japan and its Korean neighbor. It might just make them better.

Seeking a new paradigm

The statement was long, some three times longer than the 1995 Murayama statement issued on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. The Murayama Statement marked the high-water mark of postwar Japanese apologies. The length of Abe’s statement, plus the fact that it was Cabinet-endorsed, suggests the Prime Minister was determined to make this the definitive Japanese word on the war, on the legacy of that conflict, and on the issue of apologies. Only time will tell whether that will be the case, since a future Japanese government may have more – or less – to say on this subject.

The statement’s content also made clear that Abe sought to eliminate the need for future generations of innocent Japanese to have to apologize for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the statement’s shortcomings probably guarantee that Tokyo has not heard the last of calls from the region – particularly from Korea – for further apologies. But this does not mean that relations between Tokyo and Seoul are destined to remain in the depressing funk they have been mired in during the tenures of the Prime Minister and his counterpart, Republic of Korea President Park Geun-hye. But more on that later.

Better than expected

For all its faults, the Abe Statement is better than we had reason to expect, although not as forward leaning on some issues as some of us had wished.

Abe’s well-known reluctance to apologize to Japan’s neighbors, his support from those holding strongly nationalist views, his past quibbling over whether Japan really committed “aggression” during World War II, and his denial of official Japanese involvement in the sexual enslavement of the so-called “comfort women” gave us ample reason to fear that this year’s anniversary statement would be deficient, even troubling, in many respects.

But Abe surprised us, including by using the word “aggression,” and making it clear it was Japanese aggression he was talking about. The Prime Minister also mentioned “colonial domination,” “deep remorse,” and “apology” for good measure. In doing so, he passed an important test, since few critics thought that these words would ever pass his lips.

Nonetheless, the extensive use of the passive voice in the statement and his citation of apologies made by previous governments rather than delivering his own gave the impression that Abe was trying to stay one step removed from the level of contrition and responsibility that had been conveyed in earlier Japanese statements.

But we can take comfort in the fact that Abe did highlight the landmark statements of his predecessors, and that he reminded us Japan has often stated its deep remorse and heartfelt apology over the years.

A new foundation for future statements

Most importantly, Abe endorsed all of the previous Cabinet statements, including those he had been explicitly or implicitly critical of in the past. In doing so, he associated himself with them as never before. And by describing these statements as “unshakable,” he made these words of remorse, apology, and contrition the foundation for future government pronouncements on the issue of Japanese wartime responsibility.

That is something that the Republic of Korea can – and should – interpret as evidence that Mr. Abe is finally willing to accept the verdicts of his prime ministerial and cabinet predecessors.

Looking back over the ups and downs of his tenure, it is fair to say that Abe has come a long way towards meeting the concerns of Koreans. But has he met all of their concerns?  To be sure, no. And is his statement the basis for a turnabout in Japan-ROK relations? On this, the jury is still out.

More might have been said

Several things in the statement have justifiably disappointed the Koreans. They had hoped to see a specific reference to (and apology for) Japan’s colonization of Korea. But that was probably a bridge too far, especially since many in Japan believe  the colonial annexation of Japan puts Korea in a different “category” than China, requiring different treatment. That is why Abe went out of his way to make a specific, positive gesture towards China. No such gesture was forthcoming for the Koreans.

The Abe Statement’s historiography provided some cringe-worthy moments, including from an American perspective, as Abe attempted to explain, and even justify, Japan’s drift to expansionism, colonialism, and war in the 1930s. Little of this can have been pleasant to the ears of Koreans, who remember only too well the harshness of their colonial experience.

But Abe’s historical analysis was tempered and corrected by his admission that Japan “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.” Coming from this particular Prime Minister, that is a sentiment and admission to be welcomed. 

Abe could have and should have made a stand-alone reference to the suffering of the Korean people, instead of merely including them on a list of many who suffered. This was a lost opportunity.

Koreans had some reason to think that Abe might do right by them. Only days before the Abe Statement, Koreans witnessed the profoundly moving scene of former Prime Minister Hatoyama falling to his knees in front of the former Japanese prison in Seoul as a gesture of apology to the Koreans who had suffered there.

And again before the statement, Koreans heard Abe advisor and former senior Japanese diplomat Yukio Okamoto describe Japan’s annexation of Korea as a “historical sin.”  Either of these gestures could have set the stage for a magnanimous step by Abe. But the Prime Minister stopped short of a Korea-specific statement of apology or atonement.

Tragedy of the “Comfort Women”

Also lost was an opportunity to make a specific reference to the comfort women – arguably the thorniest and most emotional issue complicating ties between the two countries. A positive word in this regard would have gone a long way.

Nevertheless, Abe’s admission that the “dignity and honor” of women had been damaged by Japan should not be taken lightly. It’s clear enough in his statement what he is referring to. Nor should his statement that Japan “wishes to be a country always at the side of such women’s injured hearts” be dismissed. Each of these statements potentially opens the door to a more forthcoming approach by Japan on an issue of central importance to Korea. And Korea will have a chance to hold him to his words in the months to come.

So for all of its shortcomings, Abe’s statement seems to offer Korea something to work with if Seoul is prepared to recognize how far Abe has come since early in his tenure, particularly with his endorsement of previous official Japanese statements of regret, remorse, and apology.

However, Abe’s attempt to relieve future generations of Japanese of the burden of apology misses an important point from the Korean perspective: For Japan to be relieved of the need for future apologies, it is important that today’s expressions of remorse and regret are seen as genuine, credible, and sincere. To do so, Tokyo will have to make further efforts to reconcile with its Korean neighbor.

Korea’s reaction

That is the core point of the official ROK reaction, as conveyed in President Park Geun-hye’s Liberation Day remarks last Saturday. Park was careful not to dismiss Abe’s sentiments expressed the previous day. Instead, she said his statement “did not quite live up to our expectations” – a relatively mild criticism by recent Korean standards.

Reacting to Abe’s positive statements of remorse, Park challenged his government to “match with consistent and sincere actions its declaration that the view of history articulated by its previous cabinets will be upheld, and thereby win the trust of its neighbors and the international community.” Put another way, Abe’s deeds will have to match his words.

President Park also “took note” of Prime Minister Abe’s endorsement of previous official Japanese statements. In doing so, she highlighted that one of the groups most grievously harmed by Japan’s past actions were the comfort women. She called on Japan to resolve this issue in a “speedy and proper way.”

Park restated her commitment to move towards a future of “renewed cooperation and shared prosperity” with Japan – repeating a key theme of her statement on the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-ROK diplomatic relations in June. By reiterating the importance of bilateral friendship and cooperation, and by stressing Korea’s preparedness to expand ties with Japan in the security, economic, and social and cultural arenas, Park clearly left the door open to further improvement in relations with Tokyo.

Time to turn the page?

The tone and direction of Japan-Korea relations has shifted in recent months, away from the acerbic atmosphere of last year in favor emphasizing the possibility of a more positive and future-oriented relationship.

Importantly, Prime Minister Abe’s statement appears to have given Korea just enough to work with as the two sides explore ways to improve ties and settle pending issues.

Without question, the Abe Statement could have been better, and certainly more could have been said to assuage Korean sensitivities. But the good news here is that the Korean President seems to agree that Abe is in a better place on matters of mutual concern than he has been, and that the Abe Statement contains enough to warrant further efforts to open doors, not slam them shut.

It’s too early to tell whether Seoul and Tokyo will be able to make progress on the issues that divide them. But what seems clear is that, in the aftermath of the Abe Statement and thanks to President Park’s wise, prudent, and statesmanlike reaction to it, the two sides seem prepared to try.

The U.S. role

The United States, which has a strong interest in close ties between its two allies, can help by reminding Tokyo and Seoul of the stake they have in improved relations and of the danger of allowing ties to fester. But there is little more than offering good advice and good offices that the U.S. can or should do. At the end of the day, Japan and the ROK must themselves conclude that the challenges they face and the values they share are much more important than the tragic history that divides them.