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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his war anniversary statement, Tokyo, August 14, 2015. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Abe Meets the Test

John Lee

China and South Korea offered relatively restrained reactions to the Aug. 14 speech by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II, despite their previous demands for a “more sincere response” from Tokyo to Japan’s wartime excesses. South Korean leader Park Geun-hye, for example, said that the speech contained “regrettable elements” but did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, the reaction elsewhere, especially in Southeast Asia, Australia and the U.S., was overwhelmingly positive. For example, the White House welcomed Abe’s demonstration of “deep remorse” for the suffering caused by wartime Japan, while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised the Japanese leader for recognizing the suffering caused to Australia and other countries. Singapore said the speech “expresses profound grief and sincere condolences for those who perished during the war.” The dominant sentiment in the region was largely one of relief.

That reaction might suggest, incorrectly, that expectations about Abe’s speech among Japan’s friends were low. In fact, there was a deep understanding that the speech was always going to be a difficult one for Abe to get right in terms of balance, especially with his domestic audience. Unlike most of his predecessors, Abe has repeatedly shown that he is eager to promote the vision of a confident and “can-do” Japan. The prime minister’s ambitions for Japan have led critics to suggest that he is keen to ignore or forget his country’s terrible excesses in the first half of the 20th century.

The weight of history

So why did the speech matter? After all, Japan has occupied a crucial role as one of the region’s leading economies for decades and even a poorly received speech by Abe would not have changed his country’s importance in this regard.

Japan’s immense economic role in East Asia is often underestimated when foreign direct investment, export processing and export-manufacturing trade is taken into account. Despite China’s reputation as a more dynamic growth market, Japanese consumers still have far deeper pockets than their Chinese counterparts, meaning that Japan lends critical support to the region’s export-dependent economies.

Asia’s developing economies, including China, cannot reach their potential without foreign capital and innovation, something that advanced economies like Japan provide. Indeed, Japan directly invests far more than China in every major economy in Southeast Asia. According to 2014 figures, net inflows of Japanese FDI into Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states was approximately three times that of inflows from China, with little change over the past decade. Leading Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Corp. and Sony, remain essential when it comes to technology and know-how transfers to developing Asian economies, and have been for the best part of five decades.

No amount of ham-fisted or aggressive rhetoric from Abe would have detracted from these realities. But the speech mattered because Abe is clearly determined to not just strengthen Japan’s economic weight in East Asia, but also expand the country’s strategic role as a bigger supporter of U.S. forces in the region, while emerging as an exporter of advanced military equipment and technology. This is clear from Japan’s recent and enthusiastic pursuit of big military hardware orders such as the $50 billion Australian dollar contract to build 12 new submarines, which would be Australia’s largest defense acquisition deal. It is this policy of a “proactive contribution to peace and security,” which Abe referred to in his keynote speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2014, that places him in the firing line in terms of his critics.

That was the context ahead of Abe’s war anniversary speech. Similar to the situation facing the leader of any country, the main source of his legitimacy and power is domestic. This is a sobering reality when half the population in Japan remains wary of Abe’s foreign policy objectives. On the issue of history, some complain that their leader is “not genuinely sorry” about the country’s wartime past and cannot be trusted. A poor speech dealing inadequately with Japan’s wartime history would have offered Japanese as well as foreign critics ammunition to demand an end to Abe’s more “proactive Japan.” They would have argued that Japan under Abe needed to focus more on contrition for the past rather than an ambitious view of the country’s future role.

Balancing act

There is also pressure from the more hawkish elements in Japan who maintain that history is irrelevant because Japan “has nothing to be sorry about” and such talk about the past is only holding back the country. While most Japanese stand between these two positions, the majority could still be swayed to lean too far in either direction.

It is clearly an impossible task to appease both extremes. Wisely, Abe did not attempt to do so. On the one hand, Abe explicitly reaffirmed all previous apologies for Japan’s actions during the war, contradicting those who insisted he was going to step back from previous official statements. This reaffirmation was primarily what Japan’s strategic allies wanted and praise for the speech in Washington, Canberra and Singapore reflected their relief.

At the same time, Abe also insisted that future Japanese generations with no meaningful or personal connection to Imperial Japan should not be continually called upon to apologize for the past, just as the younger generations in Europe and America should not be expected to apologize for their countries’ history of colonization, including in Asia.

As Abe insisted, those assessing Japan’s contemporary character should be looking more at what it has done as a responsible international citizen in the seven decades after the war rather than what it did in the 15 years from the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 until the end of the World War II, or perhaps, as some would insist, as far back as the annexation of Taiwan in 1895.

Presumably in order to drive home this argument, Abe expressly placed the Japanese era of imperialism alongside that of European and American colonialism in Asia. As an aside, Abe also reminded his global audience that Japan has been the only country to pay the unique and terrible price for its aggression by becoming the target of nuclear attacks. In this respect, it could hardly be said that Japan has not “suffered enough,” as some of Abe’s critics claim.

Speeches rarely have the power to change long-standing domestic positions or placate historic animosities with neighbors. But when every Asian country, with the exception of China and the two Koreas, is welcoming Abe’s more proactive Japan, Tokyo’s growing number of strategic partners are assured that Abe has successfully navigated through a fraught and sensitive anniversary.

How Japan’s prime minister proceeds from here will help shape his country’s growing ties with regional counterparts. In addition to the U.S., Australia, the Philippines, India and Vietnam are exploring ways to enlist Japan’s help in managing China’s recent assertiveness. The more Abe can persuade the Japanese people as well as the world that he can be trusted to appropriately acknowledge the past, the more support the prime minister will receive for his insistence that Japan be allowed to move ahead to meet future challenges. His commemorative speech was a good start.

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