Abe should clear wartime issues before window closes

January 27, 2015 08:12
Abe should signal to the world that  he is prepared to look squarely at history. Photo: Reuters

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is reportedly planning a trip to the United States in the spring during which he will visit Pearl Harbor, the first visit by a post-war Japanese leader to the naval base that was the target of a surprise attack on Dec. 8, 1941, and which brought the Americans into the war.

Abe wants to make a major speech to mark the 70th anniversary. In early January, he said he would follow the statement made in 1995 by the Socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, who expressed “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” on the 50th anniversary.

That statement has been endorsed by virtually all succeeding prime ministers, up to and including Abe.

However on Jan. 25, the Japanese leader said on a television program that he wants to issue a statement “of how the Abe government considers the matter” rather than simply echoing the 1995 statement, sparking fear that he will water down the Murayama statement.

A visit to Pearl Harbor could be an imaginative move to set the scene for the Japanese leader to formulate an address on how he sees Japan’s past, present and future.

The question is what Abe will say in his speech. The prime minister and many close to him are viewed as right-wing nationalists who have voiced revisionist views of history, denying official responsibility for the forced recruitment of “comfort women” to serve in wartime brothels, the validity of the Tokyo war crimes trials and the perpetration of the Nanking massacre.

The 70th anniversary speech gives him a chance to clear the air once and for all.

But in view of Abe’s right-wing background, he needs to say more, not less, than Murayama for people to be convinced of his sincerity.

Abe, who is very much in the conservative Liberal Democratic tradition, has expressed strong nationalistic views, both in his current term and when he served as prime minister in 2006-2007.

In December 2013, to mark the first anniversary of his second term, he paid a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals are honored, along with other Japanese war dead, bringing a cascade of condemnation from China and South Korea and criticism from the United States.

Because of this background, it will be difficult for Abe to convince the public that he is expressing his true feelings even if he talks about “deep remorse”.

He will have to go beyond words and take action. One deeply significant action that he can take is to announce that he and members of his cabinet will no longer visit the Yasukuni Shrine.

He can do this by establishing a secular institution where Japan’s war dead will be honored by the government in the future rather than at the Shinto shrine, where the associated Yushukan war history museum glorifies Japanese militarism.

This can be done through the construction of a new edifice or by using the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which houses the remains of unidentified Japanese killed in World War II.

To defuse the “comfort women” issue, which is poisoning Japan’s relations with South Korea, Abe should provide compensation to the remaining 55 Korean survivors, whose average age now is 88.

His predecessors had signed “letters of apology” to individual “comfort women” along with monetary compensation and Abe should be willing to do the same while adjusting the amounts involved.

Considerations of legal liability should be put aside. What is important now is to seize the opportunity and do what is morally right when some of these women are still alive. Once these women pass from the scene, this window of opportunity will be lost forever.

If Abe defuses the Yasukuni and “comfort women” issues, Japan’s dealings with other countries in the region should become more rational and less emotional.

That would be appreciated by the United States, especially if it brings an improvement in relations between Tokyo and Seoul, two of America’s most important allies in the region.

It is important that Abe should seize the opportunity to deliver a message to people in Japan and around the world seven decades after the war’s end. That message should make it clear that he, Japan’s leader, is prepared to look squarely at history.

That will enable Japan, working with its partners in the region and beyond, to face the future.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.