Japan Still Seeking Forgiveness Fifty Years Later
John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)
Leaders from over 50 Asian and African countries representing some seventy percent of the world's population met in Bandung, Indonesia this weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Afro-Asian Conference held at the same place in 1955. Much has changed since that time: the Cold War has ended, Japan has become the second richest country in the world and China has adopted market based capitalism. Unfortunately, much also remains the same, or worse (poverty, insecurity, nuclear proliferation). Of increasing concern for Japan is its on-going dispute with China over Japan's colonial past.
In 1955, one of Japan's primary objectives in attending the Afro-Asian Conference was to settle reparations negotiations with Asian states and to look for assurances that Asia had "forgiven" Japan of its wartime atrocities so that it could move on and go about reconstructing its economy. This is why, in his opening remarks to the Conference, Takasaki Tatsunosuke, the head of Japan's delegation, stated, "In WWII, Japan, I regret to say, inflicted damages upon her neighbor nations, but ended by bringing untold miseries upon herself. She has re-established democracy, having learned her lesson at immense costs in lives and property. Chastened and free, she is today a nation completely dedicated to peace." Takasaki reiterated this spirit of regret when he proposed that a Peace Declaration be adopted as part of the final communiqué stating that, "Japan, having caused so much suffering to other nations and almost completely ruined herself in the recent war, feels doubly the horrors of war and the imperative need of an enduring peace. For Japan, now on the road of reconstruction and recovery with the generous help and cooperation of other countries, peace means everything. Indeed, her very survival depends on peace." Takasaki's proposal was accepted and indeed his delegation made progress in reparations negotiations with Indonesia and the Philippines.
Relations between Japan and China at that time were extremely problematic and normalization had not taken place. Although, Chou En Lai did mention in his opening address that China was "willing to promote the normalization of relations between China and Japan," and despite a brief meeting between Chou and Takasaki, no move was made to close the gap between the two countries.
As Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi addressed the Conference on 22 April 2005, his comments reflected the fact that Japan has yet to gain the trust and forgiveness of its neighboring countries. Interestingly, Koizumi's speech repeated and even went further than the message Takasaki stressed fifty years ago. "Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations." He went on to state that, "Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility. And with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, never turning into a military power but an economic power."
Japanese nationalists would look at the above and claim that Japan has indeed apologized for the crimes it committed in the past against China on a variety of occasions. This may be so, however, the fact that forgiveness has yet to come and that mass protests against Japan's rendering of its history in its textbooks have taken place throughout East and Southeast Asia over the past month is evidence. As Hu Jintao stressed in his comments on April 22, Japan must follow up these words of remorse with action. It has to stop sending mixed messages. An apology for war crimes and a Prime Minister's visit to Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates the war dead and glorify Japan's colonial past, contradict each other. Coherence on the part of the Japanese government will signify sincerity, ultimately bringing about trust and forgiveness. Although it is encouraging that Asian and African countries have come together once again to address common problems, of which they have many, it is certainly discouraging to see that issues which were of concern fifty years ago remain outstanding today.