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Asia

Finding the right words: Japan debates its martial past

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to restore "national honor" by changing the historical perspective. Nationalist Abe is expected to maintain this stance on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s capitulation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on her recent trip to Tokyo (March 9-10, 2015), indirectly encouraged Japan in its efforts at reconciliation.

Germany had acknowledged its war guilt and France had been ready to extend the hand of friendship, Merkel said: "Reappraisal of the past is one of the preconditions for reconciliation."

Merkel made the comment at a joint press conference after her talks with the prime minister. Nevertheless, she did not want to give any advice, Merkel added – at which Abe's face remained as expressionless as before.

Just a few hours before Merkel's departure, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was heard to comment that it was not "appropriate" to compare Japan and Germany in the treatment of their war past.

There were differences in what the two lands had had to suffer during the war: Kishida was possibly referring to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, apart from the extensive bombing and shelling of various Japanese cities and towns. Further, Germany and Japan had had neighbors of a decidedly different nature, Kishida added, without expatiating.

Japan Opposition Liberal Demokratisch Partei Präsident Shinzo Abe Yasukuni Schrein Tokyo

Abe has visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo in the past

Declaration on the 70th anniversary of the capitulation

The reaction to Merkel's comments was as prompt as it was clear, mainly because Japan is in the middle of an earnest debate regarding a proper evaluation of World War II.

It has become something of a tradition for the Japanese government to issue a kind of retrospective declaration on every round anniversary of Japan's defeat on August 15, 1945 – the day on which the Japanese emperor announced the capitulation on radio.

The anniversary in 1995 saw the socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama expressing "deep regret" over Japan's "colonial hegemony and aggression." Conservative premier Junichiro Koizumi took recourse to an almost identical formulation in August 2005.

On the 70th anniversary of the capitulation, current premier Shinzo Abe will merely credit Murayama's propositions "as a whole" but place the accent elsewhere. A body of historians, journalists and intellectuals has been entrusted with the task of finding the right formulations: the body convened for the first time on February 25, 2015.

The contents of the projected declaration should include Japan's attempts at reconciliation after the war as well as Japan's future relationship with it neighbors, but not Japan's activities during the war – the experts have been told.

Japanische Soldaten in China zweiter Weltkrieg

Japanese soldiers in China, 1940

Under pressure from allies and neighbors

Abe is under considerable pressure from abroad. Japan's allies such as the United States and Germany expect that Japan will acknowledge its war guilt as usual on the coming anniversary. Japan's neighbors share this attitude.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang demanded over the weekend that the Japanese government must accept the responsibility for the "crimes of the past." South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye called upon Japan to deal honestly with its war past. Especially, Japan should accept the responsibility for the sexual exploitation of Korean women by the Japanese army, Park said. Japan has been doing the exact opposite to date.

Towards the end of October, the Abe cabinet engaged a commission "to consider concrete steps to restore Japan's honor vis-à-vis the comfort women." That's how euphemistically up to 200,000 Korean women who were forced to work as prostitutes in the brothels for Japanese soldiers during WWII are described in Japan to this day.

Independent historians have found proof that many of the women working for the Japanese army had been forced into sex labor, though the revisionists in Japan maintain that they had done so on a voluntary basis. The Japanese foreign ministry has already demanded that corresponding changes be made in US schoolbooks.

Recognition of 'comfort women' being undermined

Comfort Women Protest in Taipeh

'Comfort women' protesting in Taipei

Erstwhile cabinet spokesman Yohe Kono acknowledged officially in 1993 that the women had been recruited by private middlemen commissioned by the Japanese army. But the Abe cabinet had already claimed during its short sally into power back in 2007 that there was no proof of the active involvement of the army. And that Kono's statement was not binding for the governments to follow.

The second Abe cabinet declared in 2014 that Kono's statement had been based on the unconfirmed depositions of 16 Korean women. And that South Korea's government had provided help in the formulation of the grievances.

The way the Japanese government has been steadily distancing itself from Kono's statement could be a pointer that Abe’s declaration on the 70th anniversary of the capitulation will be just as revisionist in spirit. Even the emperor’s family has been compelled to react, though the Japanese constitution does not allow the Tenno or his family members to make political statements. Crown Prince Naruhito has publicly called for a "correct" commemoration of the war.

"It is important to look back upon our past with modesty and to pass on memories of the tragic experience correctly from the war generation to the post-war generation," the future Tenno said on the occasion of his 55th birthday on February 23, 2015.

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