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What can we expect at Japan’s 70th war commemoration?

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the end of Japan’s War, Japan’s ‘history problem’ – a mix of politics, identity, and nationalism in East Asia, brewing actively since the late 1990s – is at center stage. Nationalists in Japan, China, and the Koreas have found a toxic formula: turning war memory into a contest of national interests and identity, and a stew of national resentments. “Coming to terms with the past” has now become a quid pro quo of political demands and rebukes – for apology, remorse, compensations, and claims for territories – fueling mistrust and suspicion.

Seventy years have now passed since the end of a war that killed 25 million people in Asia, which will be commemorated on 15th August. Many observers have raised their hopes and expectations that this could be an opportunity to ‘reset’ the history problem. Much could be accomplished, they believe, with a magnanimous political gesture or a statement toward a genuine reconciliation and a better collective future for the region, especially by the head of the Japanese government.

An obstinate hurdle to realizing this hope, which is often overlooked, is that the history problem is also about personal identity. We can better understand the emotional import of the upcoming commemoration on 15th August by recognizing that for many Japanese people, it is about defining the humiliating legacy of our fathers and grandfathers – their mistakes and failures. War memory is ultimately family memory, and the questions are personal: What did our fathers and grandfathers do in the war? Did they act honorably at their time of reckoning? Do we portray them as innocent or guilty? Do we protect or incriminate our own family members? We may be in a better position to anticipate the forthcoming politics of war responsibility at the 70th anniversary by taking account of the family legacies of Japan’s elite politicians.

Hiroshima Dome 1945 via Wikimedia Commons
Hiroshima Dome 1945 by Shigeo Hayashi. CC0 1.0 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some would like to see Prime Minister Abe renew Japan’s apology in a definitive statement of wrongdoing as Prime Minister Murayama did on the 50th anniversary in 1995. However, this would be a revolutionary statement for Abe. He is the grandson of Kishi Nobusuke who masterminded the growth of colonial Manchuria’s economy, and served as munitions minister in the wartime Tojo cabinet. For Abe to reaffirm Murayama’s statement would be tantamount to redefining his colonial and wartime achievements as dreadful wrongs. Is it conceivable that Abe would be prepared to declare, as Murayama did, that his grandfather pursued a “mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations”? Such a statement by Abe would be truly ground-breaking.

Others would like to see Prime Minister Abe renew Japan’s vow for peace, in a definitive statement to “never again” engage in war. This would also be a revolutionary statement for him. It was also Kishi, as Prime Minister in 1960, who cemented Japan’s security alliance with the United States, so that American military power would dominate Asia using its strategic bases in Japan. For Abe, vowing to pursue a pacifist future would be tantamount to repudiating this grand design for Japan’s regional power. He sees the East Asia region as a dangerous neighborhood, and is now railroading new national security laws through parliament, based on a unilateral ‘reinterpretation’ of the pacifist constitution.

It would be a mistake, however, to see Mr. Abe’s statements as a complete representation of Japanese national sentiments. The ‘history problem’ is larger and more complicated than the legacy of elite families who dominated wartime Japan. Ordinary Japanese citizens — the rank and file in wartime — have also inherited war memories, and not surprisingly, they diverge a great deal from those of elite families. Many grassroots families remember the war as devastation – especially in 1944-45 – and have passed those memories to their children and grandchildren. Still others remember the harm that the Japanese military inflicted in Asia and attempt to atone in their own ways. These memories are at the root of Japan’s long standing anti-militarist sentiments and defense of the peace constitution.

With all the attention that will be paid to Abe’s speech making on the 70th anniversary in August 2015, it would be all too easy to lose sight of the broad range of sentiments and opinions that make up Japan’s attitude toward its past. Japan’s neighbors, friends and foes alike, would do well to keep this broader picture in view.

Heading image: Memorial Cenotaph, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park by BriYYZ. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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