September 3rd, 2015. A grand day for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), who celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Long, continuous parades in the capital of Beijing, an invigorating speech made by President Xi Jinping and millions of people over the country gripped by these events, unfolding on their television screens. Dozens of wartime television programs and cartoons were exclusively broadcasted all day long to show the hardship and the suffering, but also the courage of Chinese citizens during their war against the Japanese.1 Although the war ended 70 years ago, it does not seem that long ago on Chinese television.
National identity and collective memory play a vital role in relations between Northeast Asian states, far more so than in Europe. Tensions arising from happenings during the first half of the 20th century strongly affect diplomatic relations between the PRC, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) nowadays.3 Large parts of the current Chinese and South Korean population have been educated to feel a sense of animosity towards Japan, focusing on its past wrongdoings. In particular, Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 until 1945, Japan as an aggressor against China from the 1930s until 1945 and the so-called comfort women issue give rise to harsh polemics. These matters will be discussed in the following part of this article.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan isolated itself from the outside world until the Americans forced the Japanese to open their ports for foreigners and trade in 1854. Consequently, Japan went through a phase of industrialization and modernization, and gradually transformed into a developed country during the Meiji Restauration (1868-1912). Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese war (1895-1896) and the Russian-Japanese war (1904-1905) clearly illustrated the country’s increased military power. In addition, the Korean peninsula was made into a protectorate in 1907 and annexed into a Japanese colony in 1910.4 The Japanese governor-general ruled Korea with an iron fist and implemented discriminatory policies towards the Korean citizens.5
Being a country poor of natural resources, Japan embarked on an expansionist challenge to incorporate more natural resource rich regions from the 1930s onwards. Japan commenced its confrontation with China during this period, which prompted a temporary halt to the ongoing civil war between Chinese communists under Mao Zedong and the Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek.6 Both parties united themselves to take up the defense against the invading Japanese legions. The ongoing siege was accompanied by many atrocities, especially on the part of the Japanese army. A well-known example is the Nanjing massacre. The city of Nanjing was the seat of the Chinese government at the time and was attacked by the Japanese army on 13 December, 1937. The Chinese commanders fled the city before it was invaded. As such, the Chinese army couldn’t formally surrender and the abandoned soldiers, knowing a certain death awaited them, disguised themselves as citizens. Subsequently, it became harder for the Japanese soldiers to distinguish Chinese citizens from soldiers and as a countermeasure, they indiscriminately killed off thousands of inhabitants. The Nanjing massacre therefore has become a symbol of Japan’s past wrongdoings against China.8
The issue of the comfort women is another dreary chapter in history. A system of brothels to support soldiers was created by a Japanese commander during WWII. Many girls, mainly Korean, were lured under false pretenses and were stationed on Japanese army posts dispersed over East Asia.9 Having suffered mentally and physically for several years, they returned to their homes after the war, with many being rejected by their homes. This issue is clearly visible in South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye’s rhetoric vis-à-vis neighbor country Japan.10
These three elements make up the main Chinese and South Korean criticism on Japan’s war past. It wasn’t until 1993 that Japan officially offered remorse for the issue of the comfort women through Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei.11 Two years later, PM Murayama Tomiichi formally apologized for all the suffering Japan caused during WWII.12 Together, the Kōno statement and the Murayama statement embody the official repentance of Japan over its past wrongdoings. All consecutive governments have upheld this principle. However, though the Japanese cabinet adhered to its standpoint, Japanese politicians have made ambiguous moves, such as visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine and revising history textbooks about Japan’s share of responsibility in the war.14
Feeling that Japan has not adequately offered remorse over its military past, both the PRC and the ROK have continued criticizing the Japanese leadership. Neither one of the countries fully accept the two apologetic statements, because of seemingly inconsiderate actions by Japanese politicians. This in turn has led to a fatigue amongst Japanese people, who argue that Japan has already apologized sufficiently in the past. This stalemate has prevented deeper integration and harmonious relations in Northeast Asia. In light of this situation, every action and statement made by a prominent Japanese person has a direct influence on bilateral relations with the PRC and the ROK.
On August the 15th, Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe gave a speech at the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Though this event did not receive much attention from Western media, it did attract attention from an abundant amount of Asian media channels. Above all, the leadership of the PRC and the ROK had high expectations of the words to be uttered by Abe on the 70th remembrance ceremony. During his commemoration speech, he mentioned the suffering Japan inflicted upon its Asian neighbors, China and South Korea among others, and strongly indicated that Japan would always walk a peaceful path in the future. Furthermore, he stressed that all future governments would abide by the official apology statements. New in his talk was the indication that more than 80% of the current Japanese population is born during the post war period, and as such, there is no need for future generations to continuously apologize for past wrongdoings of their country.15 This clearly did not correspond to Chinese and Korean expectations of the speech, who expected a formal full-scale apology out of the event.16 On the contrary, PM Abe denied them any chance in the future to witness a new apology from Japanese officials.
To conclude, it’s clear that all parties have conflicting interests in this case. The leadership of the PRC and the ROK request a whole-hearted apology, arguing that this issue is a prerequisite of better political relations. However, the Japanese leadership deems it unnecessary to apologize once again. As such, domestic elements hinder any possibility of thawing diplomatic relations between the PRC and the ROK on one side, and Japan on the other side. Due to these longstanding different views, it’s highly unlikely to witness an improvement in Northeast Asian political relations in the nearby future.