For the previous two decades, on the August 15 anniversary of its surrender in WWII, Japanese Prime Ministers have expressed sorrow — using phrases such as “profound remorse” and “sincere mourning” — for Japan’s aggression in the war. Not this anniversary. At the ceremony, which took place last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his dedication to “lasting world peace” but choose not to indicate regret for Japan’s past actions.
Abe’s conspicuous omission follows Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso’s recent suggestion that Japan should follow the example of the Nazis in the Weimar Republic and change its constitution “quietly… without anyone realizing it.” Aso has since retracted his comments and apologized for causing a misunderstanding despite his “true intentions.”
Abe’s verbal omission and Aso’s verbal blunder are only the latest rumblings of a resurgent nationalism. As the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands continues to simmer between Japan and China, the U.S. must be careful not to be drawn into it. The islands, which are currently controlled by Japan, but which historically have been part of China, have become the focus of populist agitators on both sides and a potential flash point.
The territorial claims of the two countries aside, Abe’s dismissive rhetoric of past Japanese aggression makes his accusations of Chinese aggression ring hollow. On the one hand, he has frequently accused China of provocations in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, insisting that the islands are Japan’s “unique territory, historically and in terms of international law.” Accordingly, he has criticized China for its effort to “change the status quo by force” and its resort to “coercion” and “intimidation.”
But by Abe’s own standard, these accusations can have no objective meaning. When asked by Foreign Affairs in May if he accepted that Japan was the aggressor when it invaded China, Korea, and attacked the U.S. in WWII, Abe insisted, “how best, or not, to define ‘aggression’ is none of my business. That’s what historians ought to work on.” And a month before that, when asked if he supported a 1995 apology for Japan’s past behavior, he responded, “The definition of what constitutes an ‘invasion’ has yet to be established in academia or in the international community…. Things that happened between nations will look different depending on which side you view them from.” Demonstrating the sincerity of these beliefs, Abe has suggested that the 1995 apology be revised.
But if defining “aggression” is not Abe’s business, how is it that he frequently accuses China of both aggression and provocation? That is what we call having your cake and eating it too. It would not matter so much if these were simply rhetorical flourishes. The earnestness of the belief, however, suggests that Abe only sees others as aggressive and is not willing to acknowledge past — and perhaps present and future — Japanese aggression and provocation. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party’s previous dismissals of the Kono Statement, which apologized to “comfort women” — especially Koreans — sexually abused by the Japanese during WWII, is a continuation of this campaign of historical revision.
Such a boorish — and dare we say aggressive — posture is particularly toxic in the current Asian environment in which Xi Jinping is promoting his own version of nationalism under the slogan “China dream” and working to assert what he considers China’s territorial rights in the South and East China Seas. That the clash of nationalisms could create a conflagration into which the U.S. would be drawn is a conceivable reality.
America is bound by treaty to defend Japan. But if we unwittingly become an enabler of resurgent Japanese nationalism — over a pile of uninhabited rocks, no less — we do Japan, China, and ourselves no favor. America does not have the privilege of relegating the meaning of aggression, provocation, and invasion to the history books. Neither does Japan.