Friday, August 1, 2014

Australia, Japan Make History by Moving On from It

For 60 years Australian governments in their dealings with Japan have chosen to make history rather than be bound by it. This was never politically easy and many Australians continue to be disappointed by reports of influential Japanese who appear to sanitise Japan’s wartime record. Australian soldiers and civilians who fell prisoner to Japanese forces suffered brutal treatment, as did other allied forces and many peoples of East Asia.

Although many more Australians have died on foreign battlefields, the humiliation, deprivations and atrocities suffered in Japanese captivity arguably represent the greatest tragedy to befall Australians since the mistreatment of indigenous peoples by European settlers. It was a deep wound in the national psyche which did not heal with the allied victory and subsequent war crimes trials. Japan’s southern advance in World War II had been experienced by all Australians as an existential threat to the fledging nation then marking only its fortieth anniversary of national federation.

So it was no small matter for Australia to host a visit by the then Japanese prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, in 1957 and to enter into a treaty of commerce that would lay the foundations for the normalisation of economic relations between the two nations. Kishi — who served Hideki Tojo’s wartime government as minister of munitions and was imprisoned for three years as a Class A war crimes suspect — was a contentious figure at home and abroad. It is poignant then that Kishi’s grandson, Shinzo Abe, should be the first Japanese prime minister to address the Australian parliament.
photo: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Tony Abbott smile after signing the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement and Agreement on the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology, 8 July 2014. AAP

In welcoming Abe to the Australian Parliament, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott pointedly noted that Abe had paid his respects at the Australian War Memorial, as his grandfather had done.Australian reactions to Abe’s speech were generally very favourable. His
explicit reference to Sandakan, a place name indelibly associated with the worst atrocity committed against Australian POWs, was a potent symbolic gesture. Noting the loss of many young Australians with bright futures, and the trauma of survivors, Abe said he could find no words to say and could ‘only stay humble against the evils and horrors of history’. This could readily be critiqued as a narrative cop-out that bore no direct recognition of Japanese agency in the tragedy. Yet, three generations on, finding the right words for a Japanese leader to deliver, and in English, is no easy task.

Abe did not apologise, but this prompted little criticism. Australian politicians have long since foresworn the politics of apology extraction in relation to Japan. Speaking the name Sandakan was enough for most of the Australian audience.

What Australian criticism there was targeted the comments the Australian Prime Minister made in prefacing Abe’s address. Abbott spoke of how the Japanese submariners killed in the daring 1942 attack on Sydney Harbour had been buried with full military honours, saying that even at the time Australians ‘admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task although we disagreed with what they did’.

One critic faulted Abbott’s
‘oddly diluted’ language given the threat that Australians had felt in the face of imperialist aggression. Less convincingly, Sydney University’s Kerry Brown concluded that Abbott’s remarks represented a mistaken intrusion on a dispute between Japan and China over matters of war memory.

Elements of the Chinese media decontexualised Abbott’s remarks and responded with vociferous criticism — expressing indignation at the warm welcome being shown to Abe.

But such reactions deny Australia ownership of its own collective memories of Japan’s militaristic past and its right to judge Japan’s past and present conduct.

China and South Korea do not have a duopoly on victimhood. Although China and South Korea suffered at the hands of Japanese forces on a much larger scale, and for a lot longer, that is of no consolation to the many Australians who were also victims of Japan seven decades ago. This is not a competitive tournament of past victimhood. Australians are right to feel indignant at the trivialising of their history of suffering.

While Australia has never shied away from an open discussion of Japan’s wartime past, it has not held it against Japan either. This, in turn, has made it much easier for Japanese leaders and diplomats to make public gestures of atonement in Australia. And there have been many over the years.

The Australian government is well informed, through an effective diplomatic presence in Tokyo, of Abe’s bind on the
politics of memory. We may hope that Abbott’s referencing of the Japanese submariners, and the mirroring in Abe’s speech, was a cue to a less problematic war remembrance by the Japanese leader. It was a gesture of separating personal sacrifice from state mission, and an authentic narrative about private and state actions aimed at making a better history from a sad one.

Abe may yet draw the wrong lessons from Australia’s goodwill on history matters and simply wait for the Chinese and South Koreans to be more accommodating. Australia should more proactively present to Japan its own painful coming to terms with the history of dispossession of Australia’s indigenous peoples.

We make history both by forgiving the wrongs of others, and by confronting the truth of our own.

Christopher Pokarier is Professor of Business and Governance at the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University.


No comments:

Post a Comment