Thus it is unfortunate that so many decades on debates surrounding Japan’s wartime history are still stirring controversy in the region. While Japan has issued a number of apologies, the most significant came on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, when then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama made the now famous Murayama Statement. That statement offers a straight-forward apology and squarely acknowledges that Japan followed ‘a mistaken national policy…and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations’. It has been maintained as the official position of all successive Japanese governments under both the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan. The basic nature of the statement leaves no room for equivocation, and it is critical that Japan adhere to this statement if it is to maintain its standing in the international community.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated that he will make a commemorative statement on 15 August, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Following the recent controversy in Japan over the references to comfort women in American history textbooks, there has also been speculation that Abe may seek to undercut the Murayama Statement. But any move to contradict Murayama’s words seems unlikely since doing so would undermine the Abe administration’s national security agenda as well as Japan’s hard-earned reputation as a nation committed to peace.
In fact, the path that Japan has followed over the last 70 years is nothing short of extraordinary. After the war, Japan reinvented itself as a peaceful nation by going through a remarkable democratisation and by promulgating a new constitution that included the famous Article 9 ‘peace clause’. Japan built an egalitarian society, achieved rapid economic recovery to become the second largest economy in the world in less than 25 years, utilised its wealth to establish itself as a leader in technological innovation, and became one of the world’s leading providers of official development assistance — all the while never firing a single bullet. Japan’s peaceful identity and its contributions to global public goods have been recognised around the world, as evinced by its positive image in global opinion polls.
Looking forward, Japan must make clear to the world that it is continuing to face up to its wartime conduct; that it recognises the pivotal role of US support, which enabled Japan to reinvent itself; and that, based on its proud record over the past 70 years, it will continue to work for the peace and prosperity of the region in the future.
To best position itself for future regional cooperation, the Japanese government must pay more attention to how its foreign policy is perceived among its neighbours. Most critically, it must clarify where it is moving with the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, which it is undertaking in order to allow the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to engage in collective self-defence. While the contemporary security environment makes it important to move forward with a common-sense reinterpretation of Article 9 that will allow limited forms of collective self-defence, more rigorous explanation is required to demonstrate that the reinterpretation set out in the cabinet’s July 2014 decision will maintain the constitution’s original spirit.
The Abe cabinet’s reinterpretation names three new conditions for the use of force beyond cases where the Japanese homeland is under attack: ‘When an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan…threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn the [Japanese] people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’; when there are ‘no other means to repel the attack’; and when the use of force is limited ‘to the minimum extent necessary’.
These conditions appear restrictive, but since they do not come with any geographical limits, there is significant potential to push the envelope toward a more expansive interpretation. For instance, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) could theoretically be interpreted as posing a threat to the Japanese people’s constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some may argue that this would open the door for the SDF to participate in coalition air strikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, a scenario that goes well beyond the spirit of the constitution.
As the Abe government seeks to pass the legislation needed to implement collective self-defence, the debate is bound to be influenced by ISIL’s recent killing of two Japanese hostages. Abe has hinted at the possibility of new legislation to permit the SDF to engage in rescue operations for Japanese nationals abroad with the consent of host nations. This debate goes to the very heart of Japan’s post-war identity. On the one hand, liberals argue that Japan plays a unique role as a pacifist nation and that, as a country not directly party to any conflicts, its Middle East policy and humanitarian assistance significantly contribute to regional stability. On the other hand, conservatives argue that Japan cannot isolate itself from the global phenomenon of terrorism and must be prepared to use the SDF to safeguard Japanese interests. While there are merits to both arguments, Japan’s national security policy must be determined in a calm and rational manner. The danger now is that Japan’s security policy and postwar identity may be shifted by a wave of emotional nationalism following these tragic deaths. In shaping new policy, a careful balance must be maintained between clarifying the legitimate roles of the SDF and maintaining Japan’s identity as a pacifist nation.
Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at JCIE and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs.