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.