Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’h statement on the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the Asia-Pacific War evoked mixed reactions from commentators. Some media reports were critical of its vagueness and of the historical narrative it presented. Others found hope in the fact that that Abe repeatedly referred to the need to “engrave in our hearts the past” and emphasized that the apologies given by previous Japanese cabinets “will remain unshakable into the future.” The White House welcomed Abeprevious Japanese cabinetemorse” and his assurances of Japan’s intention to contribute to future global peace and prosperity. As Amy King points out, even the response of the Chinese government was “notably restrained,” but many commentators also argued that the real impact of the statement on regional relations remained to be seen.
Much depended, of course, on implementation. What sort of past did the Abe administration intend to engrave in the hearts of future generations? What exactly did Abe mean by the curious wording of his comment on previous government apologies: not, “we reaffirm and will uphold” the apologies, but rather the passive voice statement that the apologies “will remain unshakable in the future”? How did the Japanese government plan to fulfill its promise to “lead the world in making the twenty-first century an era in which women’s human rights are not infringed on”?
Though much still remains to be seen, a couple of months after the Abe statement, answers to some of those questions are starting to become clear. One disconcerting answer to the first question came in early October, when Abe reshuffled his cabinet. Hawkish Education Minister Shimomura Hakubun, embroiled in controversy over the troubled plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was among those who were replaced. Here was the perfect opportunity for Abe to demonstrate the sincerity of his comments on the need to learn from the past by appointing a moderate who could be relied on to handle the all-important history textbook issue with tact and care. Instead, Abe’s choice was Hase Hiroshi, a former professional wrestler who is also a former member and long-time supporter of the contentious Japan Society for History Textbook Reform (JSHTC). Created in 1996 to promote “patriotic education” and ensure the removal of references to issues like the Nanjing Massacre from Japanese textbooks, it tweeted a message of delight at the appointment of Hase, who had “worked so hard in many ways to support the textbook reform movement of this Society.” This hardly seemed like a promising step on the road to reconciliation, and the response from the Chinese and Korean media was predictably condemnatory.
By itself, Hase’s appointment might not be taken too seriously, for Hase is a curious, chameleon-like character who seems capable of holding several apparently contradictory positions simultaneously. He is, for example, not only an ally of the JSHTC, but also a key figure in a cross-party group of parliamentarians which promotes better relations between Japan and North Korea. But other recent events reinforce the troubling message conveyed by his appointment. Another, less widely reported, new appointment is Kawai Katsuyuki, who was named as one of five special advisors to the prime minister, with responsibility for furusatozukuri and cultural diplomacy. Furusatozukuri (literally, tozukuridiplomacyility for f five nicies to promote local economic and cultural development and is a responsibility that has been held by earlier special advisors; but cultural diplomacy is a new addition.
This change is clearly related to a push by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Abe government to expand Japan’s “strategic information diplomacy” by disseminating information about the official Japanese view on matters including territorial disputes with neighboring countries and contentious historical issues. The past year has seen a large increase in Japan’s budget for information dissemination activities, particularly targeted at US audiences. In March 2014, the LDP established a special International Information Investigation Committee (IIIC), headed by Lower House parliamentarian Harada Yoshiaki. The committee’s interim report, delivered to Abe in June this year, highlighted the “anti-Japanese propaganda” being disseminated particularly by China and Korea, specifically citing the “comfort women” issue, territorial problems, the Yasukuni Shrine, and the opening of the memorial hall to Korean nationalist Ahn Jung-geun in the Chinese city of Harbin. In response to these issues, the report calls for Japan to shift from “neutral” or “defensive” cultural diplomacy to a “positive offensive in ‘information dissemination’ and ‘information strategy.’” Abe’s reported response was to urge the committee to further strengthen its efforts. The IIIC works closely with another Party group, the Special Committee to Restore Japan’s Good Name and Credit, set up in October 2014, which in July 2015 presented the prime minister with a report fiercely denying reports of the forcible recruitment of “comfort women” (including the UN Coomaraswami report) and calling on the government to redouble its information efforts on this issue.
Cultural diplomacy is becoming an increasingly important issue for countries worldwide, and there is nothing surprising or reprehensible about Japan’s developing and expanding its programs in this field. China and other neighboring countries use their cultural influence in ways that have caused concern and debate in many quarters, as evident in the controversy that surrounds the potential influence of the Confucius Institutes on academic freedom. Japan could have an important role to play in using cultural diplomacy to disseminate the values of democracy, free speech, and grassroots civil society, which many Japanese citizens have worked long and hard to build.
But the content of the positive information offensive currently unfolding, apparently with the prime minister content of traises serious doubts about the sincerity of the expressions of remorse in Abe’s seventieth anniversary statement. One puzzling element has been the widespread distribution of two English language books to politicians, scholars, media professionals, and others in America, Australia, and possibly elsewhere. These books are being distributed by prominent members of the LDP, who urge the recipients to read the books as a corrective to “misinformation” being disseminated about Japan by others. The two books, Getting Over It: Why Korea Needs to Stop Bashing Japan, by a Korean-born author who has become a naturalized Japanese citizen, and History Wars, Japan — False Indictment of the Century, written and published by the right-wing Sankei ankeiten a are highly inflammatory, non-academic works full of historical mistakes. History Wars is a sustained attack on the 1993 Kono declaration, the Japanese government’s apology to the former “comfort women” and one of the key apologies, which, according to Abegovseventieth anniversary statement, will rsary statemekable into the future.”
It is not clear exactly who is organizing and coordinating this campaign, or what relationship it has to the reports of the two LDP committees mentioned earlier, but it is noteworthy that one of the LDP politicians who has been engaged in distributing the books is Kawai Katsuyuki, the prime minister’s newly appointed special advisor on cultural diplomacy. The wording of the LDP committee reports and the nature of the current information campaign raise fears that the Abe government, while offering reconciliatory phrases on the international stage, is pandering to powerful historical forces of denial within the ruling party and the broader Japanese right. Such a Janus-faced approach risks aggravating a vicious cycle of provocative national actions by the governments of East Asia, with consequences for regional stability.
The tragedy of this is that there is no reason to think that the views expressed in books like Getting Over It and History Wars actually represent the views of most Japanese people. Indeed, a considerable number of ordinary Japanese have been working quietly for years to achieve reconciliation with their neighbors. To give just one of many examples, as Abe prepared for his UN address, two small citizens’ groups, the Hokkaido-based NGO East Asia Citizens’ Network and the Korean group Stepping Stones to Peace, were jointly conducting a journey of healing to return the remains of 115 Korean forced laborers who died in wartime Japan to their homeland. This homecoming journey was the culmination of years of collaborative workshops bringing together young people from Japan, Korea, and beyond.
People who engage in such bridge-building projects understand that the process of reconciliation is an ongoing and challenging one. It requires sincerity and dedication and a willingness to overcome difficulties together. Decades of hard work of groups like these are being undermined by the extremism of their political leaders. The continuing power of historical denialism in the Japanese ruling party casts a deep shadow over the aftermath of the recent China-Japan-Korea trilateral summit and Japan-Korean bilateral summit. Although the Japan-Korea summit produced statements from both sides about the need for steps to resolve the “he the women” issue, it is very hard to imagine how a resolution can be reached as long as Abe continues to placate, if not actively encourage, the forces within his own party which seek to deny inconvenient facts from Japan’s wartime past.