This week’s historic visit to Pearl Harbour may win respect from the US, but it will be viewed quite differently in China and South Korea, Stephen R Nagy writes.
For some, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbour on 26-28 December to pay his and Japan’s condolences to the fallen is an insincere and calculated gesture; one that is geopolitically motivated and runs counter to his track record of participating in government committees that have actively sought to whitewash Japan`s imperial past or at least emphasise that Japan was a reluctant participant in a defensive war. Some have even suggested that Abe should visit Seoul and Nanjing to foster reconciliation in Northeast Asia and put the ghosts of Japan’s Imperial past behind them.
There is little doubt that geopolitics associated with the deepening Sino-Japanese rivalry is the primary motivation for Abe’s visit. Notwithstanding, the visit is rational, strategic, and a demonstration of Abe’s personal track record of revisionist and nationalist tendencies that coexists with his pragmatic and realist approach to governance.
Since returning to power in December 2012, Abe has demonstrated his pragmatic governance numerous times by adopting positions that both appeal to, but also upset his conservative base. For example, his visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 was lauded by his supporters but widely condemned by allies and foes alike. The December 2015 Comfort Women Agreement with South Korea was fiercely opposed by the Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), a small but vocal supporter of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May 2016 was also seen by some of his conservative supporters as insufficiently repentant considering the gravity of the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Similarly, Abe’s willingness to look beyond sovereignty to achieve a resolution over the Northern Territories issues with Russia sparked rage in far-right groups and the visit to Pearl Harbour this week will also be seen by his party’s far-right wing as further evidence of Japan’s post-World War II emasculation by the US and Abe’s proactive role in diluting their nationalistic agenda.
In the areas of trade as well, Abe’s support for the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (but likely resurrected agreement) required the Prime Minister to push back against the agricultural lobbyists, traditional support groups for the LDP. Even his 2015, 14 August Cabinet Statement for the ‘70th anniversary of the end of the war’ and the Report of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century that proceeded it left conservative supporters feeling betrayed and even more determined to push their conservative, nationalist agenda that views Japan unfairly singled out for its wartime past.
With that history in mind, the visit to Pearl Harbour will be another piece of evidence that Japan’s Prime Minister is a pragmatic, strategic and rational politician understanding that his personal inclinations are outweighed by the deepening Sino-Japanese rivalry. As a response to this national imperative, Japan will continue to strengthening relations in a multidimensional capacity with the US through reconciliatory acts such as this visit.
With audiences for the visit in Japan, the US, East Asia, and Europe, the visit demonstrates that Japan is willing to reflect upon the past with a partner that is willing to reciprocate. The US will by-and-large see the visit and gestures of condolences as further evidence that Japan is a friend, a partner and a country that shares the same world view as the US. For South Asian and Southeast Asian, European countries and other developed countries, the visit symbolizes Japan’s commitment to international law, reconciliation, and its post-World War II commitment to pacifism. They understand the geopolitical motivations for Abe’s visit but also view Japan’s post-War behaviour as exemplary in terms of a vanquished nation who has re-joined the international community of nations that not only follows but contributes to international society.
In contrast, China and South Korea will see the visit as two-faced and further evidence that Japan is unrepentant for its brutal rule of Korea from 1910-1945 and for its violent invasion of China which included atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre and biological experiments on live people. They will openly question why Abe is not willing to visit Nanjing or Seoul to convey similar feelings of remorse.
While Abe’s pragmatism may lead him to visit Seoul in the future to express his condolences to the Korean people, a trip to Nanjing remains a very distant possibility as the Nanjing Massacre is used as a national cohesive to bind Chinese citizens to a common trauma, a common experience that inculcates a deep sense of nationalism based on shared humiliation, pain, and tragedy. Japan is that cohesive.
At the same time, while Nanjing’s tragic history rightfully elicits empathy and support from countries around the world, the evolving nature and strategic instrumentalization of the historical narrative surrounding Nanjing and the Sino-Japanese war makes it nearly impossible for a Japanese leader to visit China and or Nanjing for the explicit purpose of apologising for Japan’s wartime behaviour.
A visit would bankrupt a Japanese politician’s political capital, no matter how popular they were domestically as ordinary Japanese increasingly see China in an unfavourable way because of “coercive actions” and the “increased number of incursions” in and around the Senkaku Islands. Importantly, there would be grave trepidation as to how a visit by a Japanese Prime Minister would be used by the ruling party in China to further legitimate their rule or score geo and domestic political points.
In contrast, South Korea’s willingness to come to an agreement over the Comfort Women creates political space and reciprocity that provides positive conditions for a potential visit to recognise and apologise for Japan’s colonial treatment of Korea. Valuable political capital would no doubt be spent on the visit as it would surely earn the spurn of the right-wing conservatives in Japan. That being said, there would be less concern as to how the South Korean government would use the visit to score geo and domestic political points as the root of frosty Japanese-Korean relations is related to Japanese colonialism and not a geopolitical rivalry.
While the Hiroshima and Pearl Harbour reciprocal visits to express remorse and a commitment to peace may be the model for reconciliation between a victor and the vanquished, it is not a model for Sino-Japanese or South Korean-Japanese reconciliation. With the instrumentalization of history for domestic and international politics in each of the three countries, a new model is necessary to help these countries achieve peace and reconciliation.
This is where Abe needs to defer to his pragmatic, realistic governing style over his personal right-leaning nationalist inclinations. While not without complication or using valuable political capital, Abe could defuse the instrumentalization of history by asking a third party to conduct a historical investigation and build a commemorative monument related to Japan’s wartime past. While not a perfect solution to dealing with Japan’s past and post-WW2 historical obfuscation, a third party may be able to create political space to learn and acknowledge Japan’s imperial behaviour in a non-politicized, non-instrumentalized manner.
While this solution may be unacceptable for some countries within the region because of the relationship between domestic politics and historical interpretations of WW2, it may contribute to creating momentum towards reconciliation by some of the pertinent countries in the region leading to a Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima style historical détente.