On PM Abe’s 70th Anniversary Speech

Today, the 70th Anniversary of the Japanese Surrender to the Allies in World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech-the full text of which can be read here (in English)-commemorating the end of the war, and remarking upon the legacy. This speech has been the epicenter of much recent speculation by public commentators across the globe; such an immensely complex historical events are colored by the recent policies of Abe’s government which have begun to expand the limits of the use of power by the Japanese Self Defence Forces, curtailed heavily since 1945.

It also is immensely important in the nationalist politics of Northeast Asia, particularly in terms of Sino-Japanese and Koreo-Japanese relations, which have long been strained over the historic culpability Japan has in the eyes of the Korean and Chinese populations, both North and South, CCP and Kuomintang alike, for its military-driven expansion from 1910 to 1945. PM Abe’s past visits to the controversial pro-nationalist Yasukuni Shrine, his writings, and his right-wing political language, which in some way rejected the more self-denying narratives of past administrations, have all been seen as tantamount to slipping towards renewed Japanese nationalism, and a major stumbling block to pan-Asiatic reconciliation.

The speech turned out to be a continuity of the ambiguity of Japanese historical memory when it comes to the reasons for and the legacy of the war. There is no reason, in my opinion, to be overly-critical of this result; the text of a speech that seeks to admit culpability for the war but also seeks to restore and preserve some degree of national self-recognition for sacrifices and suffering undertaken in that war is a balancing act of politics, foreign and domestic, under the emotive weight of historical memory.

There were key moments, bound to please both sides (and thence revolt the other): Abe began by reminding the world that Japan had been the first native Asiatic power to beat European Colonists at their own game of a major modern war (Russia in 1905), which “gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa”, a fact that, while true (see the introduction to Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire) also rings somewhat closer to a justification that Japanese military expansion was seeking to create “The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” for the benefit of Asians under the heal of Europeans imperialism. “Asia for the Asians” is a justification preached at the Yasukuni Shrine.

Such pluralist visions are hideously false to the peoples of Korea, which Japan annexed and then forcefully occupied in 1910, and of China, whose memories of Japan’s invasion in the midst of their violent Civil War include the wholesale atrocities (which Japanese textbooks have been accused of downplaying) and somewhat flimsy justifications for invasions that the Japanese refer to, perhaps cooly understating the fact, as “incidents”.  The history of Asiatic co-prosperity was far from plural, something that the Koreans, who feel they were treated as second class citizens in their own land, much as Poles were under Nazi Occupation, are especially keen to point out in the issue of Korean women forced into sexual service for the benefit of Japanese troops.

The reference to global economic policies from the Depression provoking Japanese isolation is too a historical aphorism, but not one giving much credence to the racial and authoritarian hierarchies of Japanese society after the First World War which played a part in Japanese expansion. The Army’s ties to the Emperor’s cult of leadership especially, which played a large part in Japan strategic vision of itself as an Asiatic landpower, directed the offensive strategies into Manchuria and then south into China. The movement of Japanese settlers into Manchuria and the Japanese annexation and administration of Korea were efforts at expansion and assimilation in Japanese-dominated Asia. Primarily about aggrandizement, the pan-Asian motives, at the time, were as pure as the white man’s burden in his colonialism. Subsequently, of course, that logic is seen as less than pure.

The narrative is not totally false; European economic chokeholds on the Japanese as they sought victory in China provoked the Pacific War in 1941. As shocking an act as it might be, Pearl Harbor was essentially a swift offensive-defensive move as a theater of a wider Japanese strategy, hoping to knock the United States out quickly and then rapidly collapse European colonies before the USA could adequately respond, leaving it in an extremely unfavorable position. Strategically flawed when this proved operationally incomplete, the Pacific War (especially the bombing of the home islands) became a driver of Japan’s strategic defeat in toto, but still was only one portion of it. Mainland China, save for a brief period in 1944, held down more Japanese troops than the Pacific ever did.  Japan’s war of necessity was really in defense of its wars of choice in China and Vietnam.

Japanese Expansion By December 6th, 1941.

Japanese Expansion By December 6th, 1941.

On the other hand, the speech was keen to reflect that suffering, and efforts at reconciliation, extended over the whole of Asia; China was singled out for special mention, both for the deaths of millions of its citizens (compounded by the civil strife that had already economically devastated large regions of the country) and for the return of Japanese orphans from Manchuria to Japan after the war.  The speech also promised that:

“We have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbours: those in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and China, among others; and we have consistently devoted ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the region since the end of the war.”

Whether it’s empty or not, the sentiment, from an American perspective, seems in the right place. At least it was not a nationalist justification, as some had greatly feared, and there was no abdication of responsibility for the war crimes which many Japanese officers and officials were imprisoned and executed for (which may prove a double edged sword as the issue was skirted entirely).

In the United States, we call this day VJ (Victory over Japan day) and spend most of our historical energies in celebration of the victory and in re-addressing the old question about the morality and efficacy of ending the war by dropping two atomic weapons on Japanese cities, to say nothing of the prolonged campaign on incendiary bombing that reduced Japanese urban and industrial centers to burning rubble. America’s occupation and subsequent cultural influence over Japan has closed and smoothed much of the alienation which might have been the inevitable result of one of the most brutal conflicts in human history. The mass bombings, the abuse of prisoners, the taking of bodily trophies, the interning of entire populations (almost universally loyal citizens), the use of atomic weapons all are hideous results of the dehumanizing understanding that Americans and Japanese people had of each other in 1941.

It is remarkable that I have been able to grow to know and to love Japanese men and women without the tinge of that historical enmity, and the cultural exchanges between our people has certainly enriched my life, especially the writings of Murakami and Mishima. the films of Kurosawa and Shindo, and the history, art, and philosophy of antique Japan.

I, however, do not live with the economic and social (material) ramifications of it as poignantly as many Asians do. America did win the Pacific War, at great cost to be sure (including my Great Great Uncle) but not the utter devastation and loss experienced by Japan. To the Chinese and Korean states, Japanese targeted persecution and destruction of their national identities and political existence cannot be wholly forgiven, especially with the resulting divisions of Japanese occupation which laid the groundwork for the Cold War power contests that extended the suffering of their populations well beyond 1945, resulting in ongoing strategic dramas along the DMZ and in the Straits of Taiwan.  To these peoples and their leaders, Japanese imperialism, like Western imperialism, has retarded the growth and extent of national destiny, especially given the economic disparity Japan enjoyed over its former conquests and most of Asia until comparatively recently.

In his history of Asia’s Wars from 1911 to 1949, SCM Paine has written that Americans often have difficulty seeing the full extent of the historical contexts of the Pacific War, focusing in a limited sense upon the role of The United States, Britain, and Australia at the expense of the Chinese and Russians. I admit that my own understanding of Japan’s militarism did not factor the role of the Soviet Union (which waged a limited 1939 war against Japanese expansion into Soviet-protected Mongolia before invading Manchuria and Korea in 1945), the full extent of American, British, and Dutch strangle-holds over Japan’s material requirements for both home prosperity and its long war in China, or the interest of the Allies in keeping Japan away from intervention (and economic disruption to western markets) in China’s Civil Wars. Certain counter-narratives often are problematic as well, whether the controversy over Iris Cheng’s Rape of Nanking or the Chinese Communist Party’s taking lion share in the credit for defeating Japan, when in fact they fought in unwilling coalition with the Nationalists under Chang Kai-Shek, and also did disproportionately less of the fighting than the Nationalists did.

I am willing to concede that Japan’s narrative need not be singled out for some unique expansionism for which it must profusely apologize; when I see images of Japanese farmers trying to dig a life out of Manchuria’s soil on a government settlement scheme, I am not unaware that such resembles American agrarian and cultural expansion into the western North American continent (with similar frontier metaphors). Perhaps the only difference is the relative political weight that China and Korea now have as compared to the Sioux Nation.

Japanese Poster for Manchurian Settlement

Japanese Poster for Manchurian Settlement

Yet it also proves that there is a layered complexity to any historic argument about causation, perhaps more than can be reconciled in a pithy public speech. In that sense, perhaps, this is absolutely about politics now, and very little about history, which is itself a haunting precipitant to action, but more abstract than Hamlet’s father’s ghost.  Yesterday’s historical epics and tomorrow’s tragedies alike are based, as Japanese writer Murakami wrote, on “an endless battle of contrasting memories.”

In sum then, PM Abe’s speech was a continuity which affirmed little, but also cast nothing to the wind. Diplomatically there will be much wrangling over contexts and sincerity, but for my part I thought that it represented a continuum which ought to challenge us all to consider our national courses and the guiding whys. Yet, the drama of the war is not concluded after 70 years, and no event is truly in a emotive vacuum to be dissected with objective perfection, so perhaps this is a bit naive.

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