Let Historians Handle Japanese History

April 17th, 2000

The year 1999 witnessed the quiet close of one chapter of history about Japan’s actions before and during World War II and Japan’s apologies for them. When Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi paid separate official visits to South Korea in the first half of 1999, absolutely no reference was made to Japan’s past actions or its apology, let alone to the issues involving so-called comfort women. It was the same when Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, who was once an active advocate of an apology in the comfort women issue, attended a Japan-South Korea ministerial conference last autumn. The issue was not brought up because South Korean President Kim Dae Jung honored the pledge he made during his October 1998 visit to Japan to consider the matter closed as Japan had tendered a written apology. China, for its part, made only nominal and minimum reference to past events when Obuchi visited Beijing in July 1999. This was in stark contrast to the tense atmosphere that existed when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Japan in November 1998.

U.S. and European academics and commentators still believe that Japan has yet to win the trust of its neighbors because it has not apologized sincerely to them, despite Germany’s complete coming to terms with its past. First of all, it is wrong to say Japan did not apologize enough. Close analysis of then German President Richard von Weizsacker’s apology in 1985 shows that it was less straightforward than those offered by successive Japanese prime ministers.

But that is not the problem. The problem lies with the misconception that Germany has settled the apology issue but Japan has been dragging its feet over the matter for more than 50 years since the defeat. Recently, I had a chance to talk to a group of American intellectuals well informed on Japanese affairs, including a Harvard University professor. I said: “You have the preconceived idea that Japan has not settled the issues in the past 50 years. Then I would like to ask you if there is anybody here who commented about Japan’s past actions and apologies, for example, in the year 1980. If you think you did, please show me the evidence.” I was 100 percent sure that nobody there had touched on those issues in that year. I answered Diet questions on more than 300 occasions between 1978 and 1981, but these war-related issues were never raised during that period in Japan, the United States, China or South Korea. In fact, at that time the issue had already been closed once. In 1980, 35 years had passed since the war’s end. Wartime events and memories that had been subjects for politicians were being handed down to historians.

Practical approach to history

It was only logical. For example, criticism of Napoleon’s imperialism and aggression was fierce in the wake of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but the memory was completely consigned to the annals of history after 1848–one generation later. The Nazi Holocaust is an exception. It specifically was a case of intentional genocide–and was not directly related to the war. This tragedy lingers in the minds of many people. Japan, as Germany’s ally in World War II, somehow has suffered collateral damage from the backlash over German actions (although Japan had made it publicly clear that it would never condone the German policy of racial discrimination). Incidents for which Japan has been blamed, such as the Nanjing Incident, however, are those that involved civilian casualties during the wartime. By definition, they fall into the same category as the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo and Dresden, as well as acts of brutality by Soviet troops in Berlin and Manchuria. These incidents are now part of history. When then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited Japan, he reportedly said the atrocity in Manchuria was committed by Russians of a different generation with a different philosophy. This may be one of the practical approaches to history. Otherwise, friendly relations cannot possibly be established among a majority of neighboring nations.

Inductive questions

Then why were issues, regarded as history, raised again in Japan? I have clear evidence on each case to show that, without exception, such war-related issues were being intentionally raised by the Japanese themselves and that negative foreign reactions were solicited by some Japanese posing inductive questions, at least at the beginning. It is difficult to explain to foreigners the reasons behind these self-damaging acts. Many of the Japanese who committed them belonged to left-wing or antiestablishment movements. They were frustrated by the failure of their political resistance to the long-reigning conservative government. The propelling forces behind the acts were communist propaganda during the Cold War and the prevailing tendency of Japanese intellectuals, including senior government officials, to avoid being labeled reactionary. Although I am yet uncertain if this explanation is good enough to enable foreigners to understand the masochistic attitude, this is the only explanation convincing to myself.

It all started with the textbook controversy of 1982. It was falsely reported that the Education Ministry had ordered a phrase in a history textbook to be changed from “invasion of China” to “advance into China” during the book’s screening for official approval. Japanese media acquired the fierce responses of China and South Korea. The report was soon proven to be false. The government, however, went on to pledge that it would consider the feelings of peoples in neighboring countries in the future, partly because of the impending visit to China by then Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki and, in retrospect, because of a need to appear vaguely like a “progressive” intellectual, which was supposed to be a good thing in the atmosphere prevailing at that time. After a controversy over then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 1985 and another over new history textbooks in 1986, a spate of disputes flared up that followed a fixed pattern–Japanese from a certain quarter reported domestic events related to Japan’s past deeds to China and South Korea and drew negative foreign responses and interference in Japanese domestic affairs. During the ensuing decade, this pattern could be observed everywhere in East Asia. Some Japanese correspondents stationed in Asian capitals would ask questions like, “Is the revival of Japan’s militarism frightening?” whenever Japan’s defense budget was increased. If questioned that way, officials and experts in Asian countries had no choice but to respond that they were “concerned.” Then, newspaper reports would appear in Japan, saying that Asian academics and experts were apprehensive about increases in Japan’s defense budget.

An end to fixed pattern

As I was posted outside of Asia in the middle of the 1980s, I was uninformed about these developments. When I visited the United States in 1988 for the first time in many years, I was surprised to find a U.S. government document saying that Japan should build up its defense capabilities “while taking the reactions of Asian nations into consideration.” When I asked why on earth such a statement had appeared in a U.S. government document, I was told that the United States was merely quoting what the Japanese government had said. I looked into the matter and found that the Japanese government had indeed made that comment, something that would have been unthinkable in 1980. But this fixed pattern of provoking controversy did not last long in Southeast Asia because the pattern was concocted too artificially. The leaders of Malaysia, Thailand and some other countries in the region grew weary of maneuvering by the Japanese left wing and mass media and refused to play that game. Recently, the Japanese media could no longer quote remarks that fitted this pattern in Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Singapore–in particular Chinese-language newspapers–which since 1992 onward has been following China’s lead. In South Korea, although a furor was first triggered by inductive questions from certain Japanese, it immediately provoked a national outcry unaided by experts’ comments on the matter. The emotions of the South Korean people, which were based on centuries-old rancor and reinforced by anti-Japanese education following the rule of President Syngman Rhee, erupted just as they were granted freedom of speech after being forced to contain themselves during the period of strict censorship that had been in force since the days of President Park Chung Hee. Anti-Japanese arguments were rampant almost for a decade. Just as this anti-Japanese outcry passed its peak, President Kim Dae Jung steered the course toward reconciliation, and his policies were in line with South Korea’s newly emerging national sentiment.

China is the last remaining problem. There is, of course, a national sentiment in China, but it is a quite separate issue when it comes to how this feeling is expressed as national policy in a polity like China. It made the 1992 visit by the Emperor and Empress a tremendous success by instituting strict controls, described as almost martial law, to ensure that no protests were heard. Chinese, including ordinary people, are strategists. They are different from the Japanese–who are so simple-minded that they believe that words are the tools to express their feelings–in that Chinese know that words should be used for their own benefit. Chinese are grown-ups, compared with Japanese. As long as there are sectors of society in Japan calling on the nation to clarify its responsibility for the war and apologize for it, it gives China a diplomatic advantage over Japan to continue mentioning the issues. But, if the entire Japanese people started saying in anger, “What right do you have to say such things? It is interference in our domestic affairs,” China would have nothing to gain from making such demands. Chinese diplomacy, too, is of course designed to serve China’s national interests and the benefits of its people. If mentioning Japan’s past misdeeds and raising the issue of apologies only provoked Japanese anger, China would stop doing so because it would run counter to the interests of its people. That had been my assumption. In fact, China apparently paid attention to the atmosphere in Japan during Jiang’s visit in November 1998 and sensed a subtle change in Japanese public mood. Beijing seems to have reflected that change in its policies toward Japan.

Had the same attitude taken by China at the time of Jiang’s visit been repeated when Obuchi visited China in July 1999, a serious schism between the feelings of the Japanese and Chinese peoples would have taken place. Considering that, I am again impressed by Chinese shrewdness in assessing the situation and its flexibility in implementing its strategies. Or, if I use common sense to assess the situation, I imagine that Chinese and South Korean leaders might have wondered if it would be advisable to continue the dangerous game of high-handedly criticizing Japan over the issues, which rely upon the support of a small segment of Japanese population, for many years to come.

Diplomacy versus history

Then, what developments can we expect to see in the future with regard to the issue of Japan’s past actions? Once, Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita said the issue should be left for historians of later generations to judge. The atmosphere at that time was so intense that this remark was not sufficient to cool the controversy down. But Takeshita’s remark should be regarded as well suited to a common sense, fair and appropriate attitude when dealing with modern history. Of course, rancor will not disappear. Perhaps not one of the 1.3 billion people who make up China’s population has family who did not suffer during the war. Although most of what Weizsacker said about the German people’s wartime misery also applies to the Japanese people, it makes a difference that the battlefield for a long time was on China’s soil. Also, when Japan colonized Korea in the early 20th century, it realized that most of the tales of patriots in Korea were about their resistance to invading Japanese troops at the end of 16th century. Also, it is absolutely impossible to delete the misgovernance of the British colonial authority at the time of American Independence from the textbooks in American schools. Historical facts will indeed remain forever.

But animosity harbored by people is a separate issue from international politics. Every government is obligated to serve the national interest as much as possible, and bilateral diplomacy targets maximum harmony between two peoples by achieving a workable compromise between both sides’ national interests. A government should not be allowed to sacrifice national interest and harmony by dragging elements of the past into diplomacy. History should be handled by historians. In 1980, the issues of Japan’s past reportedly had already been passed from the hands of politicians and diplomats to those of historians. We must politely return the issues to the hands of historians.