The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Is Historical Reconciliation Possible? A Seventieth Anniversary Assessment (1)

November 11, 2015

On July 6, 2015, with Prime Minister Abe’s much-anticipated seventie th anniversary statement in the offing, the ninety-fifth Tokyo Foundation Forum explore d the challenges of historical reconciliation in the context of Japan’s relations with China, South Korea, and the United States. In Part 1 (abridged), the panelists draw on their areas of expertise to outline the basic issues and their context.

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From left: Shin Kawashima, Jun'ya Nishino, Tsuneo Watanabe, and Yuichi Hosoya
From left: Shin Kawashima, Jun'ya Nishino, Tsuneo Watanabe, and Yuichi Hosoya.

YUICHI HOSOYA: “Is Historical Reconciliation Possible?” This is the topic of our forum today. The short answer, in my opinion, is “probably not.” However, I don’t want to close off the discussion before it begins, so let’s consider some basic questions. What do we mean by “historical reconciliation”? What exactly is the problem, and what are the obstacles in the way of reconciliation? How might we marshal our collective wisdom to overcome those obstacles?

We’ll start with presentations from our panelists explaining their basic perspectives on the issue. Let’s begin with China. Mr. Kawashima, you’re a member of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century, which drew up recommendations for Prime Minister Abe’s seventieth anniversary statement. You were also a contributor to the Japan-China Joint History Research Report, and you’ve been involved in dialogue with Chinese historians in connection with the Sasakawa Japan-China Friendship Fund. What have you come away with from these experiences?

The Long Road to Closure with China

SHIN KAWASHIMA: In a way, it’s verboten for historians themselves to make attempts at historical reconciliation or at reconciling different interpretations of history. But various circumstances have conspired to get me involved. It’s been a learning experience, and some of the lessons have been painful.

I’ve found that historians themselves—even Japanese and Chinese historians—are quite capable of dialogue. But I’ve come to have serious doubts regarding the degree to which such dialogue can benefit society as a whole.

The members of the joint history project, for example, drew up a report on the basis of their dialogue. As soon as people in government—especially the Chinese government—saw the report, though, they started bombarding it with criticism. As one of the project’s sponsors, the Chinese government insisted that certain parts of the report couldn’t be made public. So, those parts were redacted from the official Chinese version, and as a consequence of those changes, it was no longer the same report. Media reports, in addition to further distorting the findings, simply focused on the differences with the Japanese version. As a consequence, whatever progress we made through dialogue was lost. This is just one example, but it illustrates the basic problem, which is that historical issues take on a completely different cast depending on whether they’re being discussed at the academic, government, media, or grassroots level.

Meanwhile, recent political developments have made things more difficult. For example, the Chinese government has applied to UNESCO to have historical materials on the Nanjing massacre and the “comfort women” added to the World Heritage list, and the application is scheduled to be reviewed in September. Beijing has adopted a policy that puts these historical issues with Japan front and center, not only domestically but externally as well, making them the focus of public diplomacy and propaganda campaigns. Under the circumstances, you can’t help but wonder what historians like us can possibly accomplish.

People who specialize in reconciliation issues often say that the first step is for the parties to “forgive but not forget.” But it seems to me that neither China nor South Korea has arrived at that stage with regard to Japan. Both the government and the general public are still at the stage of “We won’t forgive, and we won’t forget.”

Ambiguities of the Japan-ROK Basic Treaty


HOSOYA: What about Japan and South Korea? This year a series of events were held in places like Tokyo, Seoul, and Jeju to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic ties between Japan and the Republic of Korea. Mr. Nishino, you’ve probably attended quite a number of those events.

JUNYA NISHINO: My field of specialization isn’t history per se but international politics, with a focus on the Korean Peninsula. However, my work does involve archival research in contemporary history. As I see it, the issues surrounding reconciliation with South Korea, as compared with China or the United States, are unique in the sense that Korea was never technically at war with Japan. In the context of the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender, the main focus of reconciliation tends to be Japan’s role in World War II. But for the Koreans, it’s about the three and a half decades under Japanese colonial rule, from the annexation of Korea in 1910 until the end of World War II.

Japan and South Korea signed the Treaty on Basic Relations on June 22, 1965, and diplomatic ties were normalized six months later in December. The normalization process took fourteen years of negotiation. To reach an agreement, the two sides had to settle on a very ambiguous formulation concerning the period of colonial rule. Article 2 of the treaty states, “It is confirmed that all treaties or agreements concluded between the Empire of Japan and the Empire of Korea on or before August 22, 1910, are already null and void.”

Japan’s interpretation is that while the signing of the new treaty in 1965 invalidated the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910, the older document was legal until then, thus giving legal status to Japan’s annexation and colonial rule of Korea. The South Koreans maintain that treaty was illegal from the start, and therefore that Japan’s annexation of Korea was a violation of international law. After fourteen years, they were still unable to bridge this gap, so they came up with a way of wording it that would pass muster with lawmakers on both sides. Still, many South Koreans were unhappy that the text of the treaty contained no expression of remorse or apology.

But then, in 1998, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and President Kim Dae-jung signed a joint declaration that, as I see it, completed the task of historical reconciliation, at least in a formal sense. The declaration records Minister Obuchi’s “deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” along with President Kim’s appreciation of the prime minister’s statement and affirmation of the need for both countries to “overcome their unfortunate history and to build a future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation as well as good-neighborly and friendly cooperation.” You can sense a generosity of spirit on the South Korean side.

So why are the same issues still being talked about today? There are reasons on both sides, but when I come back to this issue, I’ll discuss how the situation is viewed in South Korea.

Realities of the Japan-US Relationship

HOSOYA: Next, I’d like to ask Mr. Watanabe to talk about Japan’s postwar reconciliation with United States. You spent ten years at a Washington think tank from 1995, and you’re one of a precious handful of researchers here in Japan who really understand what’s going on in the minds of US policymakers.

TSUNEO WATANABE: My work centers on the study and analysis of Japan-US relations. I’m not a historian by training, so I’ll be approaching the subject by discussing how Americans view these historical issues, and also how the Japan-US alliance and the international order factor into our interpretation of history.

Of the countries we’re talking about today—Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States—which one stands out from the others? The answer, obviously, is the United States. America is the hegemonic power that has sustained the world order since the end of World War II.

One of the prime targets for nationalists who object to the “self-flagellation” of mainstream postwar Japanese historians is the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. But a wholesale rejection of the tribunal and its conclusions is tantamount to a rejection of postwar US leadership and the Japan-US alliance. This would provide the perfect opening for those powers that would welcome a breakdown in Japan-US relations. The Japanese can’t afford to lose sight of the fact that the United States is essential to the current world order, and that the Japan-US partnership has served both our interests well over the past seven decades. If we lose sight of that and reject the foundations of the current international order, the discussion could veer in a direction that we’ll live to regret.

In the West, the mainstream media’s recent coverage has focused on whether “historical revisionists” in Japan are seeking to justify Japanese aggression in China in the 1930s. There’s no denying that there is a small minority in Japan who take that position. In every country, there are those who attempt to whitewash the past. And since Japan is a democracy and upholds freedom of speech, anyone is free to express such views.

What’s hard to understand is why this minority view should provoke such an extreme reaction in the Western media. It would be one thing if Japan were behaving in a manner its neighbors found threatening—say, by building up its military or expanding its territorial claims or challenging the existing world order—but Japan isn’t doing any of those things.

Some articles in the Western media have labeled Prime Minister Abe a revisionist. Abe is certainly a conservative at heart, but he’s also a dedicated supporter of the Japan-US alliance and the postwar international order built by the United States. Far from challenging that world order, he has made it clear that his government supports it vigorously.

Historical revisionism is an international issue insofar as an interpretation of history that justifies past aggression could also justify future challenges to the international order. In that context, people need to keep in mind that in East Asia, Japan is not the country that’s causing widespread alarm by brandishing its military might in an apparent bid to alter the international status quo. It’s China—which is, paradoxically, the country that is making the most noise over Japanese interpretations of history.

The other major point I would stress is that historical reconciliation is an ongoing process. We need to accept the fact that differences over the interpretation of history are going to continue cropping up from time to time, and when they do, we have to respond in a levelheaded manner, taking into account our own interests and the ramifications of our response for the international order.

In February this year, Greece began pressing Germany for World War II reparations amounting to 162 billion euros, including repayment of a loan that Nazi Germany forced the Bank of Greece to extend to the German occupiers. Most people felt the demands were outrageous, but the German government reacted in a calm and collected manner, pointing out that Germany and Greece had long since reached a political and legal settlement with regard to war damages and repayment of the loan. If instead the Germans had waxed defensive and tried to minimize their culpability, things could have gone badly for them. We need to learn how to respond to accusations and demands in a levelheaded fashion.

I agree with Mr. Hosoya in thinking that historical reconciliation with China or South Korea will not be easy, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. The best way of dealing with this issue is to keep our focus on minimizing the damage to the nation’s image and interests.

Past Efforts and Challenges

HOSOYA: Thank you for the important suggestions in all of your presentations. Next I’d like to ask four questions. The first three pertain to points Prime Minister Abe made at a press conference in January concerning his planned seventieth-anniversary statement. It seems to me that these are vital to the issue of historical reconciliation.

First: What would be the best way for Japan to officially sum up its deep regret regarding the war? This is something our Asian neighbors are watching closely.

Second: What has Japan achieved in the seventy years since World War II? What efforts has it made to bridge the gaps with other nations’ perceptions of history and achieve reconciliation?

Third: Given the answers to the first and second questions, what policies should Japan adopt henceforth?

The fourth question is one I would like to pose myself. What sort of historical assessment of the war are you expecting from Prime Minister Abe in August, when he gives his statement to mark the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender?

Starting with question one, then, let me ask each of you how you believe we should assess Japan’s role in the war with respect to China, South Korea, and the United States. Mr. Kawashima, let’s start with China.

KAWASHIMA: Mr. Nishino mentioned that Tokyo and Seoul have already achieved reconciliation at the official level, and this is essentially true for Japan and China as well. In 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement expressing the government’s “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” for the damage and suffering Japan caused, and Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi adopted the same wording in 2005. Although there was no immediate response from China, Premier Wen Jiabao clearly acknowledged these expressions of remorse and apology and indicated China’s appreciation in a speech to the Japanese Diet on April 12, 2007. So, at least as far as statements by government leaders are concerned, you could say that Japan and China have already gone a long way toward historical reconciliation.

Apart from such statements, there’s also a group of four basic bilateral documents: the 1972 Joint Communiqu?, the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the 1998 Joint Declaration on Building a Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation for Peace and Development, and the 2008 Joint Statement on Comprehensive Promotion of a “Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests.” The 1972 Joint Communiqu? set the tone by expressing Japan’s remorse over the war,* and each subsequent document reaffirmed that sentiment. The 1998 Joint Declaration went further and affirmed Japan’s commitment to uphold the Murayama Statement of 1995. All of these are official documents that were agreed on and adopted by the Japanese and Chinese governments. It’s useful to distinguish these two different levels: on the one hand, the anniversary statements by prime ministers expressing both “remorse” and “apology,” and on the other hand, the bilateral documents that have focused on remorse—albeit the two intersect in the 1998 Joint Declaration.

As to an assessment of Japan’s role in World War II, that’s a more complex question. Diplomatic relations between modern Japan and China go back to the Sino-Japanese Friendship and Trade Treaty of 1871. From then until the First Sino-Japanese War [1894-95], the two counties were on equal terms. But in the wake of that conflict, the relationship became an unequal one, as Japan took control of Taiwan and Penghu and concluded an unequal treaty with the Qing regime. Even so, relations didn’t deteriorate irrevocably at that time. The two nations were both bent on modernization, and Japan, which had already established a modern state, provided a model that China could follow. During this period, many Chinese scholars traveled to Japan to study and familiarize themselves with the workings of a modern state, including its laws, its organs of government, the concept of constitutional monarchy, and so forth.

The big turning point for Japan-China relations in the modern era came with the Twenty-one Demands that Japan submitted to China in 1915. The demands triggered a widespread anti-Japanese backlash in China, including a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods, and led to a sharp deterioration in bilateral ties. All of this helped fuel the radical May Fourth Movement.

Mainstream Japanese historians tend to see Japan’s China policy in the 1920s under Foreign Minister Kijuro Shidehara as a time of conciliation and nonintervention, characterized by support for the Washington Naval Treaty. But Chinese historians take the view that Japan waged a consistent and continuous campaign of aggression against China from the Meiji era on, marching headlong toward war as part of an imperialist policy toward the mainland.

This perception gap widens when you get into the 1930s. Chinese historians talk about the Fifteen Years War as a single historical event starting with the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and continuing until Japan’s surrender in 1945. This is consistent with the Chinese focus on Japanese aggression as the keynote of Japan-China relations. On the other hand, many Japanese scholars take the view that the conflict in Manchuria ended with the Tanggu Truce in 1933, and that the following years, up the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, were marked by efforts toward peace; it was not a continuous war of aggression.

One of the biggest perceptions gaps pertains to the outcome of World War II. The Chinese see it as the triumph of China over Japan, whereas most Japanese have the idea that Japan was defeated by the United States. This is a gap that’s very difficult to bridge.

These historical differences extend to attitudes toward the United Nations. The Chinese still equate the UN with the Allied powers of World War II. As they see it, China was given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as a key member of the winning alliance, and they don’t see how Japan, as one of the defeated Axis powers, could possibly be accorded the same privilege. I personally feel that Japan has more than earned the right to a permanent seat, given its contributions to postwar international society, but that is not how the Chinese view things.

While I do think it’s possible for historians to narrow the perception gap with regard to the events leading up to the war by sharing and discussing the documentary evidence, that’s not the same thing as altering the government’s version of events or the way it wields that interpretation in the context of diplomatic relations. We need to keep in mind that for Beijing, historical reconciliation isn’t an absolute, freestanding issue; its aspect changes from one era to another because it’s linked to such factors as domestic politics, foreign policy, overall relations with Japan, and relations with the rest of East Asia.

NISHINO: South Korean attitudes about World War II are still heavily tinged by bitterness and regret at not having been able to join in the struggle. History museums in South Korea almost invariably feature exhibits on the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which was established in Shanghai in 1919 as an outgrowth of the March 1 Movement for independence. In 1941, the Provisional Government formed the Korean Liberation Army, and it was preparing to send troops to take part in operations within Korea when Japan surrendered to the Allies. There’s still a strong belief among the South Koreans that history might have taken a very different course if the KLA had joined with the Allies in fighting Japan.

To be frank, there’s some controversy as to how to classify the so-called Provisional Government. Internationally, it’s usually treated as a political organization, rather than a government in exile, so it’s a complex issue for the South Koreans.

As I mentioned before, Japan’s annexation of Korea is one of the key sticking points in terms of historical reconciliation between Japan and South Korea. The 1965 treaty glossed over the issue of legality with ambiguous language, and it didn’t reemerge as a serious bone of contention until the beginning of this century.

Recently, there’s been a growing tendency within South Korea to question the entire process by which the treaty was concluded. Signing and ratification took place under the authoritarian regime of President Park Chung-hee [1962-79], which suppressed the opposition by force, including those protesting the normalization of ties with Japan. Moreover, the final treaty was disappointing to South Koreans in that it incorporated no expression of remorse or apology from the Japanese government. The amount of economic aid pledged by Japan fell short of expectations as well. Of course, most South Koreans today acknowledge the role that Japanese “seed money” played in hastening South Korea’s economic development, but there’s a widespread sense that Seoul should have received something more important. This is the origin of the historical divide that’s plagued the Japan-Korea relationship in recent years.

Another key issue at the time of the 1965 treaty was whether Japan would recognize Seoul or Pyongyang as the legitimate government of the Korean Peninsula and whether Japan would have the latitude to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea at some point in the future. This is the issue addressed by Article 3 of the Treaty on Basic Relations. These issues were embedded in the bilateral relationship when the treaty was signed, but they’ve only surfaced fairly recently.

So, is reconciliation possible? If so, how long will it take? These are the questions we’re addressing today. I think we need to face the fact that a complete historical reconciliation between Japan and South Korea is going to be very difficult. But in terms of our relationship with the Korean Peninsula, it seems to me that if the North and South are united, the face of Korean nationalism is likely to change. So, we still need to think about historical reconciliation in the context of building a relationship with a reunited Korea, and it seems to me that the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, which is also the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea, is good opportunity to examine these issues thoroughly.

History in the Cold Light of Today’s Realities

WATANABE: In terms of historical interpretation, Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea are obviously very complex. The Japan-US relationship is fairly simple by comparison. But Japanese feelings toward America are slightly more complicated. I think the key is how we come to terms with it ourselves.

Going back to the Tokyo Trial, I think the majority of Japanese understand why Japan, having lost the war, would be held accountable for the war crimes it committed. At the same time, there are people who question why the United States hasn’t been similarly held to account for its massacre of civilians in violation of international law in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Tokyo.

Japan has nationalists on the left as well as on the right. Rightwing nationalists are basically conservative and tend to support the Japan-US alliance. But this brand of nationalism also has a tendency to justify the past and to vilify China and South Korea, and in its extreme form, it fuels animosity toward the United States as well. There’s also a strain of anti-US nationalism on the left, represented by some of those leading the protests against Abe’s security bills. So, there’s a potential for anti-Americanism on both the right and the left.

Any official statement regarding the past has to take full account of the importance of the Japan-US relationship. We need to realize that there are forces out there ready and eager to exploit any potential rift between Japan and the United States. And that would be bad for Japan and for the world as a whole.

Before the war, Japan isolated itself by failing to grasp or ignoring the fact that the world was changing and the tide was turning toward international cooperation. But since the war, Japan has taken a dramatically different course. For example, Japan is one of 190 states that are currently bound by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which came into force in 1970. Under the treaty, nonnuclear states like Japan agreed never to acquire nuclear weapons, while the nuclear states—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China—committed themselves to pursuing nuclear disarmament. Japan has the technological ability to develop nuclear weapons if it wanted to, but it has pledged not to. This is a pretty important fact to keep in mind.

Any summation of Japan-US relations in the seven decades since the war naturally entails a review of the path taken by Japan in the postwar era. A review guided solely by wishful thinking, divorced from international reality, could easily open up a Pandora’s box. Some of what comes out of it could seek to undermine the foundations of the US-led international system on which we depend. We need to trim our expectations to fit this reality, recognizing that life in the real world is not always going to match our ideals.

Unlike the United States, neither China nor South Korea was a democracy at the time when it made peace with Japan after World War II. So, even though our governments reached an agreement, there was never sufficient discussion or understanding among the general public. The United States is a democracy that upholds freedom of speech and, since World War II, Japan has also built a democratic society conducive to free debate, so we’ve been able to have a relatively open discussion regarding historical interpretations and inconsistencies. That’s one reason reconciliation with China and South Korea has been more difficult than with the United States.

(Abridged and adapted from the transcript of the 95th Tokyo Foundation Forum, July 6, 2015.)

Is Historical Reconciliation Possible? (Part 2)

* The English translation reads, “The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself.”—Ed.

    • Project Member, Political and Diplomatic Review
      Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo
    • Shin Kawashima
    • Shin Kawashima
    • Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Keio University
    • Jun’ya Nishino
    • Jun’ya Nishino
    • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation
    • Tsuneo Watanabe
    • Tsuneo Watanabe
    • 細谷 雄一/Yuichi Hosoya }
    • Former Research Director
    • Yuichi Hosoya
    • Yuichi Hosoya
    Areas of Expertise
    • Political science
    • theory and history of international relations
    • contemporary European history
    Research Program

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