Nations sometimes have leaders who shoot themselves in both feet and then promptly stuff them in their mouths. Japan’s current leaders have lately outdone all these others before.
Opinion leaders in the region have recently noted the excesses of right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, its various indiscretions, and the reactions to them.
Much in the simmering controversies, notably in South Korea and China, comes courtesy of Abe’s team in Tokyo’s establishment. He, his deputy Taro Aso and some of their appointees have actively stoked the embers of regional contention.
Abe, the nationalist grandson of imprisoned Nobosuke Kishi, a suspected “Class A” war criminal, had briefly served as prime minister before without much controversy.
But by courting contempt this time in trying to rewrite history and defiantly visiting Yasukuni War Shrine honouring war criminals to proclaim that Japan did nothing wrong in World War II, Abe got the trouble he risked getting.
Aso himself is a “veteran” in provoking controversy. As foreign minister before, he was even more defiant and unapologetic than Abe, and has lately called on Japan to learn from Nazi Germany.
Their appointees such as chairman Katsuto Momii and governor Naoki Hyakuta of public broadcaster NHK have likewise made outrageous comments about Imperial Japan’s atrocities.
Momii said the sex slaves that Japanese troops made of Korean women was a common occurrence of any country at war, earning a rebuke from the United States.
Hyakuta championed Imperial Japan, denying that the Nanjing Massacre ever happened.
Abe’s choice of other controversies at the same time included efforts to rewrite the post-war Constitution to make it less conciliatory, revising past apologies for the war, and hardening Japan’s claims to disputed maritime territories.
The result: aggravating relations with South Korea and China. Although China-Japan relations are often said to be fraught because of Japan’s horrific wartime incursions, Tokyo’s relations with Seoul are even worse.
Even at the height of activism against US imperialism decades ago, Japan remained the biggest sore point for Koreans.
Now Abe is even less popular among South Koreans than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with two successive Presidents – and conservative ones at that – underscoring this position.
In a Korean press commentary on Thursday, Abe was described as having “become by far the most hated Japanese head of government for Koreans in recent decades”.
With 82% of Koreans convinced that Japan has not atoned for its sordid past, others have called Abe by worse names.
But have Abe and his inner circle learned anything from all this? They have offered retractions and apologies when pressed, but remained firmly set in their views.
Yet it need not be so. It was not like that for many years before.
In the 1990s, NHK invited me to give a seminar to regional news correspondents at its headquarters in Tokyo.
I was then holding a fellowship at a Japanese policy research institute to examine the prospects for regional cooperation, which happened to be a time of some regional ferment.
I introduced South-East Asia’s history and cultures without mentioning the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan, because there was no need to. Yet a young newsman later approached me to say he knew of Japanese war crimes despite all the denials.
A senior NHK staff who shared the taxi with me later explained that the common image of a constantly apologetic Japanese people was a misleading stereotype. Wherever these NHK people have gone today, they do not seem to be represented in its board.
Around that time, “maverick” Japanese historian Saburo Ienaga was entangled with the Japanese government in several court cases over an accurate depiction of Japan’s role during the war.
In Tokyo’s clumsy attempts to whitewash its wartime atrocities, the Education Ministry rejected Ienaga’s school textbooks. As he arrived at the courthouse to take on the authorities, he was cheered by a supportive Japanese public.
The Japanese public has repeatedly been more enlightened and liberal than any nationalistic government or self-proclaimed “liberal” party.
Commentators put this difference down to a flawed and dysfunctional political system, despite a mantle of democracy.
A recent commentary excused Japan in otherwise unfavourable comparisons with a contrite Germany because of “cultural” differences. However, while Germany assists in the international pursuit and prosecution of Nazi war criminals, Japan has the Yasukuni Shrine glorifying such criminals instead.
The commentary added that Germany was different in being offered full membership of a European community.
Actually, Japan was offered both membership and leadership of an East Asian Economic Grouping, when its economy was stronger and China’s ascendancy was still in its infancy, but Tokyo rejected it outright.
It was further said that like Germany, full atonement is best done in groups. But very much unlike Germany, there are groups in Japan that continue to deny wartime atrocities and – like Hyakuta and his ilk – insist that Imperial Japan had done Asia a favour with invasion and occupation.
Hardly anyone who has suffered Japanese wartime occupation would believe that tale. Japanese forces had never invaded North-East or South-East Asia only to grant independence to the countries there.
Among these reactionary and revisionist groups was a far-right party that had organised an international conference in Tokyo to argue these points some two decades ago.
As I entered the hall as an observer, I was swiftly introduced to a war veteran who had proudly published a book to “prove” that the Nanjing Massacre was a myth.
When former Malaysian foreign minister Tun Ghazali Shafie spotted me in the hall, he came over to assure me that everything was under control and that the Malaysian embassy had a staff present to take notes.
I looked around and saw a young Malaysian diplomat trying to make sense of the proceedings.
The organisers had invited foreign speakers like Ghazali to endorse their views, to which he hastened to reply that all he meant was that the region should look to the future together rather than dwell on the problems of the past. They did not seem to take note of the nuances.
Such extremist groups remain active in Japan, and have become even more vocal and visible than before. Observers note that they have lately moved from the margins to the mainstream of Japan’s body politic.
What is the sum total of their impact on Japanese officialdom? How far has their influence strayed beyond Tokyo?
Earlier this month, a Japanese diplomat based in Kuala Lumpur reviewed some of these issues with me in a private discussion.
He was a youngish, liberal-minded officer about the same age as the NHK news correspondent who confided in me in the 1990s.
In the course of our discussion I mentioned that although South Korea and China are often cited as griping about Japan’s militarist past, people in South-East Asia who had also suffered Japanese imperialism feel the same without necessarily announcing it to the world.
He expressed surprise, not knowing before that anyone in this region had suffered anything under Japan during the war.
Tokyo’s history deniers and revisionists seem to have scored some success after all.
Contributed by Behind The Headlines Bunn Nagara, The Star/ANN
- Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
- The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own
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