Shinzo Abe, historical revisionism and the Japanese right. Part 1.

Shinzo Abe, historical revisionism and the Japanese right. Part 1.

Guest post by Andrzej Koslowski.

This multi-part post is a much expanded version of a comment I tried to make on Robert Kelly’s post on his Asian Security Blog. Robert Kelly wrote a post on Prime Minister Abe’s Statement given on the 70th Anniversary of the end of  World War II. I tried but did not succeed, and after several attempts I gave up and published my comment on my own university web page. I still do not know why I can’t post comments on professor Kelly’s blog. I don’t think it has anything to do with the contents of my comment, since my disagreement with professor Kelly is less strong than that in some of the comments that have appeared. I assume it is some technical reason which I have not been able to discover.

Let me start by saying that I agree with the main point that professor Kelly makes, namely, that Prime Minister Abe’s statement could have been better, at least from the point of view of a Western liberal scholar. But Prime Minister Abe is a Japanese politician, although, in my judgement a much more liberal one than his reputation (of course provided the word liberal is understood in the classical european sense rather than the American one). Those who consider him an “extreme right winger”, have no idea what the Japanese extreme right wing is really like.  For a start, if he had been one of them, he would never have said any of these words:

Incident, aggression, war — we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. We shall abandon colonial rule forever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world.

With deep repentance for the war, Japan made that pledge. Upon it, we have created a free and democratic country, abided by the rule of law, and consistently upheld that pledge never to wage a war again. While taking silent pride in the path we have walked as a peace-loving nation for as long as seventy years, we remain determined never to deviate from this steadfast course.

Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war. In order to manifest such feelings through concrete actions, 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.

These are not words that would please “extreme Japanese nationalists”, or at least those of them who wish to see Japan exclusively as a liberator of Asia from Western colonialism, to which the people of the “liberated countries” owe a debt of gratitude rather than being owed an apology.  It is worth noting (although it is not directly relevant this  Abe’s speech), that contrary to the assertions commonly made on the Left), not only Abe’s words but also many of his most notable actions run quite contrary to likings of some of the prominent extreme rightists. This includes such actions as remarkable warming of in relations with Israel or Abe’s support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

These positions are certainly not popular with those on the Japanese far right who seem to have inherited from war-time Japan  the crazy conspiracy theory centered anti-Semitism so often mentioned by Kiyosawa Kiyoshi in “A Diary of Darkness” (which will be a topic of a future post). Not accidentally, most Japanese anti-Semites are also Putin supporters. A typical example is a former ambassador to Ukraine, Mabuchi Masuo, very popular in certain kind of nationalist circles. His basic line is that Jewish and American (which are more of less synonyms) plots are responsible for all of Russia’s problems in Ukraine (as well as the anti-Japan mood in Korea) and that Putin is Japan’s best ally.  In fact, a great deal of Japanese far right views on Russia mirror the propaganda spread by pro-Russian trolls in other countries. However, not only does Abe clearly not share these views but neither does the great majority of the Japanese public. It is, in fact, interesting and not insignificant, that on both of these issues that I mentioned (anti-semitism and putinofilia) the Japanese nationalist Right is closer to the Korean public opinion than to the Japanese one. To support  the first claim, it is enough to compare the results the poll for Japan and for Korea (looking at the answers to individual questions is particularly instructive). As for the second, the results are here.

My point is that, ignoring for the time being historical issues Shinzo Abe is much closer to main stream liberal conservatism of the West than what to the nationalist Right. But, in fact, this is also true even when only historical views are considered, as long as one does not accept the Korean nationalist version of history as a holy writ  (more about that later).

It seems clear that professor Kelly believes that Prime Minister Abe should have adopted a still more apologetic tone, although he surely understands the point made by Michael Auslin that adding new apologies to the 18 or so that Japan has issued already would make no difference at all as far as China is concerned and probably not much more in Korea’s case.

Some people in the West believe that a gesture similar to that of  the German socialist chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970, when he melt down at the monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during a visit to the then communist Poland. But any such gesture would be totally inappropriate. Any comparison between Japanese actions and the Holocaust would be obscene (which does not stop Chinese and Korean nationalists making such comparisons at every opportunity) and while Germany has indeed done a lot to atone the inexpiable crimes against the Jews, it has done much less than Japan in making up for the mass destruction inflicted on the its other victims. In particular, under the 1965 treaty signed normalizing  relations between Japan and Korea, South Korea received very large amounts of economic aid, grants, loans and, significantly, compensation for victims of Japanese rule which laid the foundation for South Korea’s rapid economic development. Poland whose World War II losses, which included nearly a fifth of its population and total devastation of its economy, having been abandoned by its Western allies, received very little. Its communist government was pressured by its Soviet masters to accept a derisory compensation from East Germany and renounce any further claims, which “renunciation” was  then happily “inherited” by United Germany.

However, most important reason why Prime Minister Abe should not go beyond the apologies that Japanese leaders have already made is that it would be hypocritical of him to do so and would be seen as such both in Japan and outside.  If he did that, he would not be speaking truthfully either on his own behalf or on behalf of the Japanese public. Opinion polls show that that the majority of the Japanese people think that Japan has made sufficient apologies for the past. By the same token, the majority believes that the further Chinese and Korean demands are politically motivated and insincere and the charges that are now being made exaggerated.

Shinzo Abe, historical revisionism and the Japanese Right.

That certainly does not mean that the Japanese have suddenly replaced their post-war pacifism with nationalism and “militarism”.  But a combination of two factors have made many re-examine some of the assumptions that have been dominant since Japan’s defeat in World War II.  One of these assumptions was that of benevolent intentions of its neighbors and former victims: China and both Koreas.  The second is the trust in their Japan’s intellectual elites, both in academia and media, which since the end of the war have been dominated by the left, in fact, to a large degree, by Marxist left. It was  not only the Japan Communist Party but also the Japan Socialist Party that remained committed to a “socialist revolution” until after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. And while the Japanese internationalist Left is given credit in the West for diligently reminding the Japanese of their wartime responsibilities and opposing Japanese “denial” of events such as the Nanking massacre, it itself has a record of “denial” that easily matches that of the nationalist Right: it denied Stalin’s show trials and mass purges, the Gulag, the communist mass murders in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and North Korea not to mention its continuing denomination of the United States and Israel.  For years Japanese  education and Japanese media was dominated by the Left and, in the case of history, mostly by Marxists. That meant that while “Japanese fascism” and “militarism” was condemned, so was the United States, Israel and “western imperialism” while hardly a bad word could be heard about North Korea, China or communism. In fact, the Japan Socialist Party and many of its supporters in the academic world continued to believe that life Kim Il Sung Korea was freer and happier than in South Korea. Not only was there no concern for oppressed people of Tibet or the Uighurs but rare Chinese defectors  seriously risked being handed over back to China. While North Korean agents were kidnapping Japanese nationals, the pro-North-Korean organization Chongryon  was allowed to engage with impunity in spying and subversive activities that would not be tolerated in any other country, and enjoyed tacit support and sympathy from the Japanese left and intellectuals.

Having lived in Japan for nearly 30 years, form 1980 on,  I remember  reading in the Japan Times advertisements paid for by Japanese companies “congratulating the people of Poland” on their national holidayon the 22nd of July -t he anniversary of the formation of Poland’s first communist regime, imposed by force by the Soviet Union.  I recall how one day in 1990, while the Soviet Union was in its terminal decline, one of my university colleagues asked me what I thought would be the future of the Soviet Union and was visibly upset when I answered “none”. Another of my colleagues was equally shocked when the statue of the founder of the KGB Felix Dzerzhinsky’s was removed from its location in Lubyanka Square in front of the KGB Headquarters for like many Japanese intellectuals he had thought of the “Iron Felix” as a positive hero (Dzerzhinsky, who was responsible for mass executions of suspected opponents of the Bolsheviks, was Polish. A statue of his that stood in the center of Warsaw was pulled down in 1989).

The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 demonstrated to the Japanese public how much of the “progressive ” version of  history that  until then they had uncritically accepted was demonstrably false.  This change  in attitudes in Japan began even more visible after the abductions  of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents became public knowledge in the early 2000s and even more so after China began to turn increasingly hostile (a process that had its origin in the Chinese Communist Party’s embracement of nationalism after the Tiananmen Square massacre).

Not surprisingly, as the result of these “revelations”,  the Japanese public became more receptive to the voices of Japanese nationalistic “revisionists”.  After all, since the people who have been promoting and entirely black version of almost all of Japan’s political history before 1945, turn out the be largely the same ones who have in turn praised Stalin, Mao Ze-Dong, and the Kim dynasty, and claimed that the Soviet system was morally superior to the American one,   it is not unreasonable to suspect that their version of Japan’s history could be as flawed as their version of world history.  When you realize that certain people have been, telling lies all their lives about certain things, why would you believe them to have been truthful about others?

This does not mean that the wider Japanese public has ever accepted the “Japan as victim” and “Japan as liberator of Asia from colonialism” view of the nationalists.  Rather, the Japanese public, having realized that history had been and was being used as an ideological weapon by the Japanese left, as well as by China (whose use of history as weapon against Japan is extremely similar to Russia’s use of the same weapon against Ukraine) wanted a more balanced viewpoint  to be taught in Japanese schools: one that was both more truthful and more in line with the needs of the new reality, in which the old assumption that Japan faces no threat to its security or that it can rely on external guarantees may be just as false as it turned out to the in the case of Ukraine.