Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Japan’

Japan: sorry seems to be the hardest word …. to accept

Imagine German Chancellor Merkel visiting a war memorial honouring senior Nazis. You can’t, can you?

Yet Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has done the equivalent, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine where high profile war criminals are commemorated.

His last visit in December 2013 met with loud protests from Japan’s neighbours China and South Korea who arguably suffered the brunt of Tokyo’s empire building in the first half of the last century. Even close ally the US tut-tutted about it.

Hoping to avoid another row, Abe has not visited since, but apparently tone deaf to the way this is perceived abroad, he has sent offerings, including on the anniversary last year of the end of World War 2 when the Japanese Emperor announced the surrender to the Allies on August 15th 1945.

This matters in the here and now because it adds to tensions in East Asia that are already rising as China’s growing power sees it trying to reassert its influence, upsetting the US-led post-war order in the region.

In the run up to this year’s 70th anniversary of the end of the War, there was much speculation about what Abe would say in his speech to mark the milestone.

Would a man known for his nationalism and whose own grandfather served in the wartime military government stand by the statements of several of his predecessors and apologise for Japan’s aggression and the suffering it wrought on its neighbours during its brutal invasions and occupation?

In the event he largely did.

He expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology”. He used key words like “aggression” and “invasion” that his critics were listening for. In the Q & A with journalists after the speech he also said he stood by the Murayama Statement, considered the benchmark for Japanese apologies.

However, if Abe was wishing to avoid criticism for being less than fulsome in his sentiments, there was more than one hostage to fortune.

The language he used to describe ‘’comfort women” – the euphemism used to describe the women, many of them Korean, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military – was a bit oblique, talking of women “whose honour and dignity were severely injured”.

He also rather unnecessarily sought to explain – some would say justify – Japanese expansionism by saying the Great Depression of the 1930s and protectionism by western countries and empires isolated Japan and led to Tokyo resorting to war.

While there is some truth in this, you can rightly quibble with this interpretation given Japanese expansionism began well before the 1930s when they seized Taiwan from China in 1895 and occupied Korea in 1910.

But ultimately these equivocations are by the by.

Japanese leaders have repeatedly apologised for their country’s aggression and wartime actions and yet they have failed to convince many, especially in China and South Korea (it’s difficult to know what North Koreans think) that they are really sincere.

Germany is often held up as the example for Japan to follow.

Germans – despite the recent flare up of name calling over the Greek debt crisis – have successfully reconciled with their neighbours and largely been forgiven for the aggression and atrocities committed by the Nazis.

What explains the difference?

There is that lingering sense in Japan that western economic protectionism pushed the country into a corner in the 1930s, even if the resort to war by Tokyo was misguided.

The remorseless bombing of Japanese civilians during the War, including the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may also help to explain why there is a stronger sense of victimhood in Japan than in Germany, where the Allies also directly targeted civilians.

Then there’s a heavy dose of politics and diplomacy.

In Europe, the Cold War led to reconciliation between European countries because Germany was central to the project of building a strong, united Western Europe as a counter to the USSR.

In Asia meanwhile, attempts at reconciliation took a back seat as the US built up Japan as a base against the spread of Communism after Mao’s victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 and the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Japan didn’t establish diplomatic relations with China until 1972 and even then people to people contacts remained limited and the two governments avoided much discussion of the past in the interests of improving economic ties.

In more recent years, leaders in China and South Korea have used nationalist sentiment against Japan to bolster political support at home and Japanese leaders, especially Abe, have harnessed apprehension of growing Chinese power for similar purposes.

All this doesn’t mean the Prime Minister should not have apologised again in his 70th anniversary statement.

But it does mean that more needs to be done on all sides to overcome the bitterness of the past.

It also means if Abe – and others on the right in Japan – want their remorse and apologies to be accepted, they need to make sure their actions reinforce the message and don’t contradict it.

In other words, Japanese leaders need to stop visiting or sending offerings to Yasukuni or trying to imply that the aggression and atrocities of the past were somehow explainable at the time.

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Germany: risking its post WW2 modest image for little gain

When it came to foreign policy, the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised his countrymen to “keep a low profile and achieve something” by which he meant concentrate on the economy and avoid getting involved in disputes.

This week has raised the question – should Germany’s leaders heed Deng’s advice?

On Monday, Chancellor Merkel was in Japan and chose to issue her hosts some of her own advice in dealing with the legacy of Tokyo’s conduct in World War 2 which is still souring relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea.

Ms Merkel’s speech reminded us how much Germans pride themselves on coming to terms with the Nazis’ wartime record and reconciling with their neighbours.

As speculation grows that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may use the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to water down previous Japanese apologies to its neighbours, Ms Merkel took it upon herself to urge the Japanese to follow Germany’s example.

Her hosts were polite and did not give away how they felt about Chancellor Merkel’s comments, but shortly after her speech events back home suggest it may have been wiser to avoid the risk of hubris and keep out of the debate about Japan’s wartime past.

On Wednesday, the very public row between Berlin and Athens over debt escalated with a reminder that perhaps Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of Nazi aggression has not been as successful as it thinks.

The new Greek government is trying to renegotiate the terms of its debt to the rest of the EU and IMF and wants to end the 2010 bailout – largely funded by Berlin – negotiated by its predecessor during the Eurocrisis which mandates economic austerity that Athens says kills any chance for growth.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been using insultingly undiplomatic language to tell his Greek counterpart – with an eye to his own taxpayers – that Berlin has been generous enough already and will not countenance further debt forgiveness.

The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, responded – also with an eye to his political supporters – by reviving claims that Berlin pay reparations for Germany’s harsh wartime occupation.

But instead of trying to emolliate Athens, as German governments of the past might have, the response of Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, was dismissive “the question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.

It is no secret to anyone in Europe that the Eurocrisis means Germany is now the continent’s undisputed political as well as economic leader. Berlin’s traditional policy of hiding its economic strength by letting France take the political lead is no longer viable given current French weakness.

It is also obvious when talking privately to Germans born since 1945 that they are increasingly tired of being reminded of what their grandparents’ generation did and feel others use the Nazi past to justify freeloading on their generosity.

But Germany is now risking undermining its newfound leadership by appearing arrogant and overplaying its hand.

It is not just the Greeks who are beginning to chafe at Berlin’s attitude. There is growing anti-German sentiment in Italy too. Outside the EU, Germany has taken the lead role in pressurising Serbia to accept the secession of Kosovo reviving many Serbs’ historical distrust and resentment of Berlin’s wartime record.

The EU works by consensus and goodwill to build common interests and Germany has prospered since 1945 by pooling sovereignty with its former enemies and appearing unthreatening.

But circumstances change and now demand Berlin take a more active leadership role in Europe because it is the only country economically strong enough to bail out its partners and save the Euro.

However, it is one thing to lead by force majeure and quite another to take people with you.

Germany and the rest of EU face tough enough challenges trying to revive economic growth and ensure the Euro has a future.

If Berlin abandons the modesty that has reassured the rest of the world it no longer harbours the desire to dominate and awakens the ghosts of the past by lecuring others and deliberately reminding its neighbours just how powerful it is, it will make the job of leadership even harder and risk undermining its newfound role before it takes root.

 

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