Strategic vision for Northeast AsiaJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is provocative. Using wartime history as his political weapon, he wants to whitewash memories of war and recast history to expand his base.
The Ichigaya Memorial Hall in Shinjuku, Tokyo, bears the roots of Abe’s nationalistic agenda. It was the former headquarters of Japan’s Imperial Army and also served as the setting of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East between 1946 and 1948 in the aftermath of World War II. Japan’s military leaders, including General Hideki Tojo, were sentenced to death for sparking the war and therefore held accountable for their wartime atrocities. Yet today’s memorial site has few exhibits concerning the trial, save for a short video, or anything that suggests remorse and atonement for wartime crimes.
However, the hall does have a sign in the center of a podium to mark where Emperor Hirohito sat. The sign defines the spirit of the site, driving out memories of the war, defeat and repentance. It stirs a nostalgic longing for Japan’s glorious imperial days and its emperor. The exhibition hall is only filled with remnants of the imperial army.
There is just one relic from the trials behind the glass door - a photograph of Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, the lone judge of the International Military Tribunal who delivered a not-guilty ruling to all of the Japanese defendants. The 12 tribunal judges were mostly American and British, and included judges from other allied countries. Pal, however, questioned the legitimacy of the Occupation Forces’ tribunal, calling it a “sham employment of legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge” and just an “opportunity for the victors to retaliate.”
In August 2007, Abe visited India during his first term as prime minister. He referred to Pal as an upright and courageous judge who has the respect of the Japanese people. He met with Pal’s son in Kolkata and remembered the words of Pal: During his visit to Tokyo in 1966, Pal advised Japanese leaders not to implant a sense of guilt in Japanese children by saying the country committed war crimes.
Pal’s argument of dissent - which actually focused on the unjust nature of the victors’ retaliation, not Japan’s guilt over war crimes - has been seized upon and expanded by Japanese nationalists. The justice’s words have helped to water down and wash out a sense of guilt over war crimes. Nostalgia let the ghost out of the closet, strengthening calls for a revival of a full Japanese military. Pal lives on in the psyche of Abe.
Germany has the same historical experience. The International Military Tribunal that tried the political and military leaders of Nazi Germany remains in the city of Nuremberg. A museum of the Nuremberg trials opened in the building in 2010. It honestly illustrates the atrocious crimes of Nazi Germany, highlighting the legacy and lessons to be learned from history.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany recently paid a visit to a former Nazi concentration camp. During her first visit to a Holocaust site as German chancellor, Merkel expressed deep remorse using much of the same language as the tribunals did. I have visited the tribunal sites for both Japan and Germany. They have quite different tones, underscoring the huge difference on how their country’s leaders view history.
Abe wants to recast the history of the war. Japan has been through two “lost decades” of lethargic recession. The Japanese replaced the liberal government with the nationalistic conservatism of Abe, who promised to rebuild the economy and revive the country’s glory. Abe’s remaking of history in less apologetic tones whets Japan’s ego longing to recall its once strong national power. The leadership’s historical perspective has touched a nerve in its Northeast Asian relationships, and now South Korea and China are mulling a joint response to protest Japan’s decisive turn to the right in foreign and defense policy.
The two countries have attempted similar steps in the past. During a Seoul summit in November 1995, Presidents Kim Young-sam of South Korea and Jiang Zemin of China decided to make a joint statement condemning a controversial comment made by a Japanese cabinet member. After the summit, President Kim said in blunt words: “We will teach Japan a lesson.” Jiang said more diplomatically, “Japan must not succumb to a few militant forces.” The Chinese president veered away from the agreement to make a synchronized response. Two years later, South Korea was swept up in a currency crisis. It asked Tokyo for an emergence loan, which was turned down.
Northeast Asian countries live in a delicate mix of conflict and cooperation. South Korea, too, has historical and territorial disputes with China. Since President Park took office, the framework of Northeast Asian relations has been modified. Seoul is emphasizing a three-way partnership with Washington and Beijing, especially on the urgency to contain North Korea following its third nuclear test.
Despite economic sanctions and strengthened pressure against the Kim Jong-un regime, however, North Korea’s nuclear threat persists. North Korea won’t likely surrender its nuclear weapons. South Korea relies on an alliance with the United States to deter and contain North Korea. But the South Korea-U.S. security alliance is not possible without the help of Japan. China is not reliable in taming North Korea. An overemphasis on ties with China can jeopardize our traditional alliance with the United States.
It is not easy to work with a leadership that uses history as a weapon. Seoul must be tactful in addressing the Abe administration. The best way would be for a two-track stance on political and historical affairs, separated from economical and cultural policy. Seoul must be decisive and stern on historical affairs, but at the same time it must leave out nationalism from economic and cultural affairs. President Park stressed that unification is the national agenda during the Liberation Day address. The historical work of uniting the two Koreas requires the cooperation and support of China and Japan. The German experience provides a good lesson. We must employ strategic creativity and vision in solving issues with Japan. Foresight in leadership and public wisdom are needed.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon