Just days before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in the United States in late April, 24 Congressmen wrote an open letter to Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s Ambassador in Washington. The letter asked the Ambassador to urge his Prime Minister to “lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues” such as the use of “comfort women” by Japanese troops during World War II. Such a foundation could only be built, according to Mike Honda (D-CA), the leader of the bipartisan group of legislators, if Abe formally reaffirmed and validated previous statements and apologies on behalf of the country for Japanese actions during the war. As the group of legislators implied, anything short of that would serve only to deepen suspicions that the Japanese leader was not remorseful about his country’s history and is instead intending to whitewash it, as many of Abe’s Japanese critics insist.
Addressing students at Harvard University during his visit, Abe responded to his critics by declaring that he stood by the 1993 Kono Statement, in which Japan offered its “sincere apologies and remorse to all those . . . who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” During the Japanese leader’s historic address to both houses of Congress, he acknowledged Japan’s “deep remorse over the war” and stated clearly that such actions “brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries.” In so doing, Abe confirmed that he upheld the views expressed by his predecessors, including all formal acknowledgment of past misdeeds and apologies offered for them. In his mind, no doubt, he did what had been asked of him, and had reason to assume that would be the end of it.
Not so. Having invited 87-year-old Yong Soo Lee as a representative of the “comfort women” to sit in Congress as his guest, Honda, a third generation Japanese-American from the only Asian-majority district in the United States, moved the goalposts. He condemned Abe’s failure to offer a new and personal apology on behalf of the nation as “shocking and shameful.”
Before Abe set foot in the Capitol, the senior director for Asia in the National Security Council, Evan Medeiros, had stressed the importance of addressing history in an “honest, constructive and forthright manner that promotes healing, but also in a way that reaches a final resolution.” Not doing so, according to Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, would allow China to exploit the rift between Japan and Korea at America’s expense. Both were responses to questions about thoughts on Abe’s impending speech. Congressman Honda and several other American officials and lawmakers clearly believe Abe failed the test, in spirit if not in word.
The desire to help the shrinking group of aging Korean “comfort women” achieve justice and even closure is certainly commendable. Rubio and others are correct that the rift between America’s two most important allies in Asia is a political headache for Washington. At the same time, we should recall that as we mark the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, traditional political rivalries in Northeast Asia are heating up rather than cooling down. Seoul and Beijing are using history to perpetuate division and to embarrass Japan rather than acting out of any high-minded desire to achieve emotional closure for their populations. Seoul was caught out by revelations that it had hired the American firm BGR Public Relations to sell its narrative of insufficient Japanese remorse ahead of the Japanese leader’s visit. That alone should put U.S. officials on notice that local and longstanding national feuds are being introduced into the American capital. If war is the continuation of politics by the advent of other means, then the use of history is often an extension of politics by still other means.
For American government officials tempted to get into these historical debates, some simple advice is in order: Don’t. They are not as straightforward as many suppose. When it comes to the politics of national apologies and victim compensation, things become more complex still. Indeed, the most contentious disagreements today do not concern what Imperial Japanese forces did during the war, but whether a now liberal-democratic Japan has paid a high enough price, to nations and to individuals, in the decades since the war. There is little agreement on these questions, even among victim nations. For Washington, quietly reminding Tokyo to recognize past misdeeds accurately and to express remorse for them sincerely is part of the solution. But allowing deep-seated historical rivalries to be fought out publicly on American soil is a very bad idea that will only give Seoul an incentive to perpetuate its feud with Tokyo, leaving China and North Korea the only clear winners.
Americans would prefer it if Japan became more like “model penitent” Germany after World War II. But in truth not even Germany fits the mold that has been assigned to it. In the first few decades after the war, Western Europe was more preoccupied with rebuilding its economies as a means of preventing the spread of Communism and entrenching the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from 1949 onward as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Thus West Germany’s success made it an essential pillar of the Western alliance. On account of its economic weight and large population, the incorporation of Germany into NATO in 1955 was widely heralded as a watershed. It was not until the mid-1980s that the Federal Republic of Germany adopted the penitent stance widely attributed to it today. West Germany had opened its arms and heart earlier to the new State of Israel, for special reasons too obvious to belabor; it offered to pay reparations in 1952, and diplomatic relations were established in 1955. But decades passed before Bonn explicitly issued apologies and officially recognized the impact of the devastation visited upon its European neighbors by Nazi forces. Most of the compensation to victims of the Third Reich did not begin until the 1990s.
Paradoxically, this penitential period coincided with the start of what was to be Helmut Kohl’s 16-year reign as Chancellor, beginning in 1982. Joining Kohl was a network of conservative intellectuals and journalists who were eager to promote a more positive view of German history and instill a “healthy sense of patriotism”, especially among the country’s youth. In a 1983 speech arguing for a more “balanced” version of history, Kohl declared, “We Germans must stand by our history with its greatness and misery, not taking anything away but also not adding anything.” In making the case, Kohl drew upon the works of earlier conservative historians from the 1950s such as Andreas Hillgruber and Ernst Nolte to depict Nazi troops as patriotic Germans fighting for an evil regime under Adolf Hitler, but fighting against an even more evil and totalitarian foe in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Predictably, Kohl’s conservative turn was roundly condemned by the German Left as a return to the self-defeating militarism and nationalism of earlier times. More surprising was the relatively low level of criticism from Germany’s West European neighbors, with the notable exception of Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom. One major reason was that Germany had become critical to bolstering the defense of Western Europe in the face of the Soviet menace. For much of the national security community in Western Europe and the United States, an economically strong, proud, and can-do West Germany was essential to collective defense and prosperity. It served no pragmatic purpose to throw historical stones at the Germans, for the windows shattered would be common property.
The Japanese journey after the war was very different. As Boston University’s Thomas Berger reveals in War Guilt and World Politics After World War II (2012), a comparative investigation into the postwar policies of Germany and Japan, Japan began offering apologies to its neighbors for its pre-1945 actions as early as 1965, some twenty years before Germany first formally did so. In the 1980s, Japanese governments expended considerable diplomatic effort in mending relations with countries in East Asia. In more recent times, the high point was an apology by Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo on behalf of Japan, which was accepted by President Kim Dae-jung on behalf of the Korean people in 1998. This was only three years after the 1995 speech by the then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama about Japanese conduct during the war, which became known as the Murayama Statement. In short, it is a myth that Germany nobly and early on confronted its past while Japan has never done so.
While there were compelling strategic and economic reasons why West European countries wanted and needed West Germany to recover its strength and standing quickly, the same cannot be said for Japan’s place in Northeast Asia. Japan developed an extensive security alliance with the United States after the war. But unlike West Germany in NATO, no overarching multilateral institutional framework knitted together America’s allies in Asia. Washington was more successful at developing a series of bilateral security relationships than it was at building a collective security architecture.
So even as Japan became the central pillar of the extensive U.S.-led alliance system in Asia, no institutionalized U.S.-led security community existed to force East Asian allies into a habit of working together on a formal level, or to make them deal with the past in a constructive matter for the sake of common objectives. Unlike the NATO community, where the strength of one member directly enhanced the security of another, America’s relationships with its Asian allies were less related to one another. This is why, during all the time that U.S. forces deployed or ported in Japan after 1951, it was understood that those forces would not automatically be available for use in a new Korean contingency. Such a segregation of theaters for U.S. forces in Europe was unthinkable.
This lack of a multilateral or collective security framework should help Americans understand why hard-won gains—such as occurred with the rapprochement between South Korea and Japan in the 1980s and 1990s—have been so easily lost in recent times. But it is not the only explanation for the deteriorating relations between these two American allies in Northeast Asia. The counter-examples are countries such as the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, and India, to name several, that are genuinely enthusiastic about a confident, active, and even nationalistic Japan as a counterbalance to China. Many of these countries and their peoples also suffered greatly at the hands of Imperial Japan during the war. The Philippines and Indonesia also suffered the indignity of their citizens being used as “comfort women” for Japanese troops. But governments in these countries have not allowed relations with Japan to deteriorate as a result of Japan’s perceived inability to confront its troubled history. In return, expressions of remorse offered by Tokyo for the past have been graciously accepted. (Take, for instance, Abe’s speech to the Australian Parliament in July 2014.)
No doubt, political history and the vicissitudes of relations among countries in close geographical proximity have played an important role. While Korea existed as a vassal state paying tribute to China for much of the period from 918–1896, it was more recently colonized by Japan from 1910–45. Even now, there are up to 700,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan who are classified as “resident aliens” and “special permanent residents”, many of whom are descendants of forced laborers brought into Japan prior to the war. With restrictions on attaining citizenship only slowly lifted from the late 1990s onward, they were denied some social rights and in many cases suffered discrimination at schools and in the workplace. Even though this situation is slowly improving, it is emblematic of the troubled history and relations between these two countries. The point is that modern Korean nationalism developed in opposition to Imperial Japanese rule rather than to Chinese dynastic domination.
Consider the events of January 2014, when China opened a museum in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, to honor Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun—perhaps the only recent monument on Chinese soil to honor a foreign national hero. The idea for the museum was an embellishment of a more modest suggestion made by South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in mid-2013 that China should create a plaque to commemorate Anh. In 1909, Anh assassinated visiting Japanese statesman Hirobumi Ito at Harbin Railway Station, which is now the site of the museum, and was subsequently captured and hanged in a Japanese prison. While Japan considers Anh a criminal, South Korea sees him as a national hero of Korean independence.
Then there are the domestic surveys of South Koreans, which indicate that many believe Abe’s activist turn is even more destabilizing for the region than the military threat posed by North Korea or China, despite the former being a nuclear-armed adversary and the latter having a military budget three times that of Japan’s, and growing at double-digit rates each year. One of the better illustrations of popular enmity toward Japan was a farcical event in December 2013, when South Korean peacekeeping forces in Sudan faced an imminent threat and issued a desperate call for more ammunition. Given that Japan’s Self-Defence Forces were the only ones on the ground with the same calibre ammunition, Tokyo promptly authorized the handover of 10,000 bullets to the Koreans. But the ensuing public uproar in South Korea forced the return of the bullets, even though this potentially put its own troops at risk.
Such sentiment might partially explain why President Park has conferred six times with President Xi since coming to power in 2013 but refused several invitations to meet one-on-one with Abe. This is despite Abe’s having held bilateral summits with counterparts from every Southeast Asian nation, Australia, India, and even Russia—in some instances several times—since winning office in 2013. The reason given is that the Japanese leader and his country have not demonstrated sufficient and sincere remorse over Japanese wartime actions. Even if we accept such reasoning at face value, Seoul has not indicated what an adequate demonstration of remorse might look or sound like, adding weight to the argument that a bilateral summit is needed precisely for Seoul to state what its expectations might be in order to break the impasse. It seems clear that the current South Korean government will not accept any form of “sorry” for an answer. Note, too, that giving Abe the cold shoulder to this extent goes beyond what occurred during the previous Roh Moo-hyun (2003–08) and Lee Myung-bak (2008–13) Administrations, even though there were rocky periods with Japan during those years as well.
Japanese critics are right that Tokyo needs to travel some distance to create the conditions for South Korea to meet it half way. For example, Abe’s earlier flirtation with the idea of re-examining aspects of the 1993 Kono statement on comfort women provided an opening for the Park Administration to question whether Abe was preparing to walk back other statements as well. Even though Kono himself subsequently issued a statement that the review conducted did not “add or subtract anything” from the statement he made more than twenty years ago, the damage was done. This and other actions have made it even more of an uphill task for Abe, despite his having reaffirmed the government’s intention to uphold all past statements on these matters, most recently in his speech to Congress in April.
However, the morality and politics of apologies must necessarily focus attention on not just Japan but also South Korea. National apologies—new ones or reiterations of earlier ones—only bear fruit when the recipient country desires to move on. South Korea’s leader could demonstrate such an intent by, for example, accepting an invitation to meet with Abe. There is also much South Korea could learn from the West European example, as well as from Southeast Asia’s and Australia’s warm relations with Japan. In particular, both Western Europe and much of Asia grew to appreciate the role West Germany and Japan played in the economic rebuilding of Europe and Asia, respectively. West Germany and Japan became indispensable pillars of a liberal, democratic, rules-based economic and security community in their respective regions, and the surrounding countries welcomed rather than begrudged the progress achieved by these former foes.
In short, these countries were determined to look forward rather than back, even if the journey was occasionally bumpy. And while the emotional wounds from the war remain raw in these societies, their governments did not manipulate these wounds to hijack or damage a common regional agenda for the future. When national apologies were issued, they elevated the reputation and merit of both the issuer and receiver, and were not generally used to belittle or humiliate their past enemies.
Looking honestly and accurately at one’s own actions is also important to the reconciliation process, not just for Japan, on whom much of the onus is placed, but South Korea as well. Again, the main quarrel is not about what occurred during the war—for that is reasonably clear—but about what Japan has or has not done since the war to demonstrate repentance. As Germany’s Kohl might have put it, Japan ought not add or deny facts from the past if it wants to find ways to move on. But the same standard should apply to South Korea. And this is where Seoul must also confront some awkward truths about its own policies in the postwar period.
One major skeleton in the Korean closet was revealed from official documents released in 2005 covering the negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo in the lead-up to the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations, which established normal diplomatic relations between the two countries, and which was kept secret for forty years. During the negotiations, Korea demanded $364 million in compensation for the 1.03 million Koreans conscripted into the workforce and military during the period of Japanese colonization from 1910–45. Japan proposed to directly compensate individual victims, but Korea insisted that it should receive a lump sum and would dispense compensation to its own citizens. Instead, under authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee (father of the current President), Seoul spent the $800 million in grants and soft loans from Japan on national economic development. Individual victims got not a single yen.
South Korea may still legitimately insist that the issue of compensation remains a live one, putting forward arguments as to why several subsequent Japanese initiatives to resolve the issue once and for all remain inadequate. The point is that South Korea’s hands are not exactly pristine. If it doesn’t confront these and other “spots”, Japan will have a hard time accepting South Korean demands for historical closure at face value.
Given that the success of the American rebalancing toward Asia depends on allies playing their part in a cooperative and constructive manner, America has much at stake in the health of the Japan-South Korea relationship. Quite rightly, Washington has firmly insisted that Japan face up honestly to the past, but it is beginning to understand that South Korea has its own role to play as well. As Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February, in the context of discussion tensions in Northeast Asia:
Any architect who set out today to design a platform for international security, prosperity, and peace would love to include in her blueprint a harmonious and cooperative East Asia [but] nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy. But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress. To move ahead, we have to see beyond what was to envision what might be. And in thinking about the possibilities, we don’t have to look far for a cautionary tale of a country that has allowed itself to be trapped by its own history.
Such views may be better received in South Korea than one might expect. In a 2013 ASAN Report survey, more Koreans consistently approved of a Japan-South Korea leaders’ summit than disapproved. Over 65 percent of respondents believed that Park should play a more active role in pursuing a cooperative security relationship with Japan, while less than 30 percent disagreed. This suggests a majority understands that important issues related to both countries’ futures are at stake and wishes to seek progress.
This brings us back to events in Washington. Helping South Korea score political points against Japan on American soil clearly does a disservice to American interests. While there was little Washington could have done to prevent Seoul’s enlisting the services of a local public relations firm ahead of Abe’s April visit, the Congressional lawmakers’ open letter was counterproductive despite its respectful tone and good intentions. All it was ever likely to achieve was not a mea culpa from Abe but rather his embarrassment and the escalation of tensions between two valued American allies.
Finally, there is a deeper lesson here for the United States. While the individual victims of wars are easy to identify, assessing the virtue of the victors and the vanquished in the decades after war is much more fraught. This means that it takes more than achieving justice for individual victims to bring harmony between two rivalrous nations. Attaining individual justice is a worthwhile outcome, but what matters most at the nation-to-nation level, as Under Secretary Sherman suggests, is getting all governments to address the demons from the past in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the future. That’s not easy, and there is only so much that third parties can do to make it less difficult.