Written by Edward Vickers.

Since the mid-1990s, successive Japanese premiers have issued expressions of regret for wartime aggression and colonialism. Nevertheless, anti-Japanese nationalism in China and South Korea has reached new heights. Hardly surprising, then, that apology fatigue has set in. Channeling this sentiment in his August 14 statement, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stated, ‘We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come… be predestined to apologise.’

The commitment to peace is central to post-war Japanese national identity, buttressed by consciousness of the nation’s unique experience of atomic attack. Japan is a democratic society where rule of law and civil liberties are safeguarded. The country’s determination to play a constructive role in world affairs is demonstrated by its enthusiastic participation in UN programmes and disbursements of overseas aid – of which China has been a prime recipient. Why, then, should Japan feel compelled to apologise to an oppressive Communist Leviathan that challenges the international order and threatens regional peace?

In fact, the ‘Abe Statement’ itself helps explain why Japan remains the object of suspicion and resentment in China and Korea. Abe and prominent cabinet colleagues have repeatedly denied the veracity of widely attested wartime atrocities. The Japanese media, covering his speech, has engaged in endless semantic analysis of his references to ‘aggression’ and ‘colonialism’. Despite acknowledging Japan’s engagement in both, he noted that this was unexceptional in a world dominated by western imperialism, and alluded to Japan’s earlier role in inspiring anti-colonial nationalisms.

The insincerity of any ‘apology’ Abe might utter was transparent even before he opened his mouth; this was a statement issued under duress. But questions of sincerity or morality aside, the willful ignorance that Abe exemplifies and promotes threatens disturbing consequences not just for external relations with Asia, but also for Japan’s internal politics.

The external dimension has drawn most international comment. Chinese and Korean politicians stoke anti-Japan sentiment for their own domestic purposes, but Abe and his right-wing allies afford them endless ammunition – through visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (where convicted war criminals are honoured with other war-dead, and an on-site museum portrays the Asia-Pacific conflict as a heroic struggle for anti-colonial liberation); outright denial of wartime atrocities; and campaigns to revise school textbooks to promote a more ‘patriotic’ account of the war. Foreign observers are entitled to conclude from all this that official Japanese statements of ‘remorse’ or ‘regret’ for the war are two-faced. This does nothing to further regional security.

However, the potential consequences for Japan’s internal political development are perhaps just as serious. In a critique of China’s propagandist distortions of history, The Economist recently described Japanese democracy as ‘deeply entrenched’. But is it? For almost the entire post-war period, Japan has been governed by the Liberal Democratic Party. This has in turn been dominated by the political, and often actual, heirs of the imperialist elites responsible for the disastrous wars of the 1930s-40s. Japan has remained an intensely regimented society, even if collective energies since 1945 have been directed towards peaceable economic rather than militaristic ends.

Invoking visions of a Japan in peril, the Abe administration today seeks to justify measures that are far from ‘liberal democratic’. One of its first acts was to introduce a sweeping official secrets law granting arbitrary power to bureaucrats, and backed by draconian penalties. Official oversight of school textbooks, already stringent, has been further tightened, with coverage of wartime atrocities significantly curtailed in most of the newest editions. Meanwhile, there has been a ramping up of ‘moral education’ in schools, promoting a homogenous, totalizing and uncritical vision of ‘Japanese tradition’.

Nor is Abe’s kulturkampf restricted to schools. The Education Ministry has announced that all ‘national universities’ will henceforth be required to raise the national flag and play the national anthem at key ceremonies. Previously foisted on schools, the extension of these rituals to universities raises serious concerns over academic freedom. Will faculty and students (including thousands of Chinese studying in Japan) be sanctioned, as schoolteachers have been, for refusing to honour the symbols that accompanied Japan’s invasion of Asia?

Even more worrying, perhaps, are attempts to suborn and intimidate the mainstream media. NHK, the state broadcaster, never a paragon of editorial independence, has been placed under the leadership of Momii Katsuto, an Abe associate with similarly disturbing views on wartime history. Momii has declared that NHK should not much ‘deviate from the position of the government in its programming.’ True to his word, NHK programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II have slavishly toed the prime ministerial line. Abe had called for an emphasis on the ‘peaceful achievements’ of post-war Japan, rather than dwelling on the events of the war itself.

NHK is far from alone in its supine political posture. A special edition of the mass circulation right-of-centre periodical, Bungei Shunju, issued to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the war, focuses on key episodes in Japan’s post-war history. Omitting any reflection on the war itself, it commences with a piece by the son of an executed Class A war criminal, celebrating his father’s dignity in adversity and lamenting the vagaries of ‘victor’s justice’.

Right-wing groups associated with Abe and his political allies have also conducted a concerted campaign of intimidation directed at those who expose wartime atrocities. Chief target has been the Asahi Shinbun, which in 2014 admitted the unreliability of one source for its early 1990s reporting on ‘comfort women’. Notwithstanding the mass of other testimony on the military system of forced prostitution, this admission sparked an escalation of right-wing attacks on the liberal media. Many editors appear to have been cowed into submission.

In democratic Japan, how do Abe and his associates get away with this? The answer lies in the depth of popular ignorance of Asia. Few students seriously study modern Asian languages; more Americans than Japanese are currently enrolled on Mandarin courses in China. And historical ignorance remains a central and inescapable challenge. Witness the enormous popularity of the novel The Eternal Zero (Ei-en no Zero), in 2013 also a blockbuster film. Depicting the heroism and self-sacrifice of tokkōtai pilots (i.e. suicide bombers), this is typical in focusing entirely on the struggle with America, ignoring the context of Japan’s bloody aggression in mainland Asia.

Ignorance breeds fear, in turn reinforcing reluctance to engage with the feared object. This vicious circle also renders many Japanese susceptible to the blandishments of crypto-fascists intent on compromising democracy in the name of ‘security’. Perhaps Abe’s attempts to ‘reinterpret’ the constitution’s ‘peace clause’ will overstep the limits of public tolerance. But a coherent, forceful and popular counter to the rightwards drift of Japanese politics has yet to emerge.

To be sure, Chinese depictions of Japan as an active threat to East Asian security are disingenuous and hypocritical. For the Communist Party, such claims distract from a welter of domestic problems, and an army of skeletons in its own cupboard. But with Japanese public discourse on the war as warped as it is, we are entitled to wonder how a ‘free’ Chinese media might report this issue. In Hong Kong, media criticism of Japan has always been more unrestrained than on the mainland.

Far from being an imaginary obstacle to good relations with Asia, conjured up by Japan’s ideological foes, memories of war and imperialism are thus central to Japan’s relationship not only with its neighbours, but with itself. The time for apologies may have come and gone, but the need to remember and confront the past remains as urgent as ever.

Edward Vickers is the co-editor (with Paul Morris and Naoko Shimazu) of ‘Imagining Japan in Post-war East Asia: identity politics, schooling and popular culture’ (Routledge 2013). He is a member of the ‘War Memoryscapes in Asia’ Partnership (‘WARMAP’), funded by the Leverhulme Trust and coordinated by Mark Frost and Daniel Schumacher of Essex University. Image Credit: CC by OECD/Flickr.


  1. This is is an enjoyable, insightful, cogent and searing discourse, and I appreciate the author’s care to balance his appraisal of both the Japanese & Chinese states, with the latter certainly not a beacon of democratic & moral rectitude. For a glimmer of empathy regarding the Chinese & South Korean attitudes on this issue, one might consider how the West would react to a similar gross manipulation and collective ignorance of wartime memory in Germany society!

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