Prime Minister Abe’s words versus actions

Many who heard and read the “70th anniversary” remarks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have called for action over words. Indeed, Abe’s written statement to mark the 70th commemoration of the end of World War II had lots of words—more than those of his predecessors Tomiichi Murayama (50th anniversary) and Junichiro Koizumi (60th anniversary) combined. Abe is criticized for omissions and evasions, especially the lack of a fresh apology.

Words, of course, are important on such occasions, but they are symbolic and suspended unless they get anchored in action. So, the public needs to be vigilant about if and how words get translated into action and hold both words and deeds accountable. But action is interactive, not a one-way street, in international relations. Japan’s neighbors and the United States need to consider how their own actions influence Japan’s.

First, a reminder of something that explicitly was included in Abe’s statement. In addition to the requisite words that had been employed in past official apologies, such as “aggression,” “colonial domination,” and “deep remorse,” Abe included “repentance.” It’s the same word he had used in his speech before the joint session of the United States Congress in April 2015. This word had been unexpected when he first uttered it in Washington, since it was new to the apology lexicon. Also, in English, the term carries a very strong meaning, referring to the religious notion of deep atonement for a sin. “Repentance” carries much more moral weight in English than “apology” or “remorse.”

Omissions in Abe’s WWII anniversary remarks

Second, what to do about omissions? We need to ask ourselves, what would another iteration of an apology by a Japanese prime minister achieve in practice? This is not the same as posing the question “How many times does Japan have to apologize?,” which many refer to as Japan’s apology fatigue. The reality is this: A fresh apology by Abe would not mean that Japan would be embraced with open arms by Korea, China, the Philippines, and others who had suffered Japan’s colonial and wartime hand. Another uttering of the word “apology” would not resolve the comfort women issue still under negotiation between the governments of Japan and Korea. A personal apology from Abe would not lead China to back down from its military expansionism in the South China Sea or from its island disputes with Japan and Korea in the East China Sea.

Rather than ritualistically criticize omissions, we can credit Japan with helpful actions. As Abe released his statement and delivered his anniversary speech, Japan was acting in support of international law and freedom of commerce that would benefit numerous other countries by participating for the first time in U.S.-led maritime humanitarian exercises with the Philippines. This multilateral exercise is a tangible commitment to safeguard and promote international access to maritime commerce that exceeds $5 trillion for hundreds of millions of people in Asia and elsewhere. Yet, there is hardly any public recognition of this action by Japan’s friends.

Abe’s deliberate omission of “comfort women” increases the onus on Japan to act, to advance and complete the bilateral negotiations on comfort women with Korea and to make good on his evasive and open-ended promise: “We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honour of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century. Upon this reflection, Japan wishes to be a country always at the side of such women’s injured hearts. Japan will lead the world in making the 21st century an era in which women’s human rights are not infringed upon.”

Call to action in Northeast Asia

The public should ask the prime minister and his government to put action to his words about making Japan a leader for women’s human rights by spelling out concrete measures for such leadership. Abe opened himself up to a larger task than redressing primarily the human rights of former comfort women. Based on his words, the huge landscape of women’s human rights is open for exploration and development, including women’s economic and employment rights in Japan; the discrimination against Buraku and Ainu women; the massive spread of trafficking and exploitation of women and girls in the sex industry; discrimination and disenfranchisement of migrant and immigrant women in Japan; many of whom are mothers of Japanese citizens—the list goes on.

With respect to the “comfort system,” Japan needs to reinstate the policy of including the abuse of women in history texts that cover World War II. In 1997, six out of seven government-approved junior high school history books mentioned the military comfort system, but by 2003, three out of eight textbooks did so. Currently, there is no mention of the comfort system in any authorized textbook. Here, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinas, Taiwanese, and not just Japanese, need to be historically accurate and insist that Japanese women who also were forced to “serve” as comfort women also be included.

If the Japanese government wants to make good on future generations’ freedom from apologies for the wartime past, it needs to act now to pay proper respect and restore dignity to the 47 documented comfort system survivors in Korea. History is not on Japan’s side, and future generations should not be held hostage to the current government’s denial of historical truth concerning comfort women.

Actions on the part of Korea and China to induce Japan toward constructive behavior could help. Korea could include in its retrospective colonial narrative the fact that there were Korean civilians who acted as recruiters and traffickers of girls for the Japanese comfort system, in collaboration with Japanese colonists.

The Chinese government could refrain from inflaming its population with anti-Japanese nationalist sentiments through such actions as the first national commemoration ceremony of the Nanjing Massacre in December 2014. President Xi Jinping claimed that over 300,000 Chinese had died at the hands of the Japanese, despite the fact that international scholars generally estimate between 30,000 and 300,000 and continue to investigate and debate the facts. Accusing Japan of denying historical facts has become commonplace, but Japan alone cannot right the wrongs of history if its neighbors don’t act to seek historical accuracy themselves.

A peace-loving and peace-making Japan now and forever

In his anniversary remarks, Abe repeated that he wants Japan to be a peace-loving and peace-making nation now and forever. If so, Japan must do everything possible to maintain Article 9 of its constitution so that it remains a peace constitution—the only one in the world and Japan’s moral claim to fame. This involves conscientiously refraining (a form of action) from transforming the Self-Defense Forces into a conventional military with offensive capabilities. Although many Japanese actively oppose such transformation and Japan lacks military doctrine for offensive warfare, its collective self-defense initiative is viewed by its neighbors as a slippery slope toward militarism.

Japan’s ability to remain a peace-loving nation with a unique peace constitution requires the active support of the United States: Washington should not push Japan to become more militarily engaged in East Asia. The new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines of April 2015 generated unnecessary anxiety for Korea by leaving the procedures and boundaries of Japan’s potential military engagement far-reaching and ambiguous. Washington and Tokyo should prioritize clear restrictions and protocol on Japanese military access in Asia.

Making apologies and amends requires deep courage as human beings. It is extremely hard, especially for nations. But constantly needing and demanding apologies and redress are also extremely taxing and damaging to the human psyche—and national morale and interests. Mustering courage, taking big steps, and committing to a collective—not just politically instrumental or narrowly nationalistic—good for East Asia are actions worth doing.