BEIJING - On April 28, the Japanese government held a ceremony it dubbed the "Anniversary of Japan's Restoration of Sovereignty and Return to the International Community.”
Held in Tokyo, the occasion celebrated the end of the American-led occupation in Japan in 1952, and featured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asking the public to cheer banzai (“long life”) to Emperor Akihito.
The commemoration was widely criticized by the Japanese media. The day before, Abe had worn a military uniform at an electoral event – the first time a Japanese prime minister has dressed that way since 1945. A few days before that, he had told Parliament that Japan “would take decisive action against any attempt to enter territorial waters.”
Observing such scenes one can’t but wonder if the new Japan that Abe is advocating is a return to pre-war times.
Since April, when his government allies visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine – which commemorates Japan’s war dead, including convicted World War II war criminals – Abe has been showing his ever more conservative and extreme view of history. His wearing of battle dress and shouts of banzai are simply startling.
A conception of history isn’t just about one’s view of history, but also determines one’s view of the current reality and the future. Not only does Abe endorse his cabinet members paying homage at the Yasukuni Shrine, he also recently said that Japan’s rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 did not necessarily constitute an “invasion.”
“The definition of what constitutes an 'invasion” has yet to be established in academia or in the international community," Abe told Parliament. "Things that happened between nations will look different depending on which side you view them from."
Abe also made a statement on the so-called Murayama Danwa (“Murayama Remarks”), made by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, where he unequivocally apologized for Japan’s “aggression (that) caused immense damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to people in Asian countries.”
Murayama called these “the irrefutable facts of history” and offered his “heartfelt apology.”
All subsequent prime ministers have endorsed the Murayama declaration until Abe, who said in an interview with a conservative newspaper: “They were remarks made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. But since then we have welcomed in the 21st century. I want to make a declaration for the Abe Cabinet that is appropriate for the 21st century, one that is oriented toward the future.”
Abe and his cabinet’s skewed view of history are emblematic of the growing conservatism of Japanese politics – and Japan’s growing nationalism and populism.
After the end of the War, Japan was occupied by the U.S. military forces, and undertook democratic reform under the lead of General Douglas MacArthur. The Peace Constitution was promulgated while the Imperial system was retained so as to maintain continuity. Since then, pacifism and nationalism have coexisted as two opposing currents of thought.
Japan’s Peace Constitution stipulates that "Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."
To this end the constitution provides that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained".
But the Japanese view of World War II and the Tokyo War Crimes Trials has been shifting. It is denying the legitimacy of the trials, and refers to those killed in action during WWII as “martyrs,” blurring the nature of Japan’s war of aggression.
In the 1980s, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone promoted the concept of “total settlement of postwar accounts,” which was followed in 1993 by Prime Minister Ichiro Ozawa raising the idea of Japan as a “normal country,” by which he meant that the nation should have its own foreign policy, independent of the U.S.
Nationalism continues to challenge the historical view of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Writing the "correct" history from a Japanese point of view to stimulate national pride became more and more popular. In 1995, 50 years after the end of the War, some members of the Japanese Parliament believed that all issues of war compensation and apologies should be put in the past and that if Japan continued to feel shame about its past, it would ruin its current efforts and reputation.
In 1997, as one of the Liberal Democratic Party members of Parliament, Abe founded the Institute of Junior Assembly Members Who Think About the Outlook of Japan and History Education, and led the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform.
With such a view of history, Japan's future is retrogressive. Japan is "returning to the future" rather than truly moving forward.
Post-war Japan has always spoken with two voices about its history. Externally, Japan admits its aggression and pleads guilty. Domestically, it remembers and emphasizes the heroic souls of Japan's dead soldiers. The growing status of the Yasukuni Shrine is evidence of this. The fact that Abe defended the recent visit by 168 members of Parliament to the shrine in the face of Chinese and South Korean protests implies that now the two sets of differentiated speech no longer exist.
As Kazuko Mori, a Japanese academic on contemporary Chinese politics and foreign relations, pointed out: "The old view of history built on tributary nationalism seems to have recovered its right to become Japan's orthodox view of history."
Japan is still an ally in East Asia that the U.S. counts on. However, The U.S. cannot let Abe trample on the truths of history. Promoting a nationalist ideology will lead to the collapse of the post-War peace arrangements and have a profound impact on the U.S.-Japan relations.
Many Japanese politicians are convinced that issues such as textbooks and the Yasukuni Shrine are part of Japan's internal affairs and cultural identity – and should not be interfered with by other countries. Cultural relativism swallows all sense of right and wrong and eludes the crimes of the dead to erase the stains on Japan’s history.
It is impossible for the victims of Japan's past to forgive and understand if Japanese people hold this kind of perspective of history – never mind trust them. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, warned: “We can open up a future of common prosperity with Japan only when Japan honestly reflects on its past.”
Alas, the colossal support rate for Abe will only intensify his regressive historical view. "Back to the future" means there is no future. The question is, under Japan's current nationalist and populist agitation, who will stop Abe from returning to the past?