Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.08.13

Stop Moving the Goal Posts

JBPress on August 9, 2013

Whenever "historical issues" come to the surface of international politics in north east Asia, Tokyo is often criticized for being insincere by neglecting or failing to learn from the past.

This is further aggravated by inappropriate remarks or actions occasionally made by some Japanese politicians in their official capacities. Their words and deeds have been seized by Japan's neighbors to question if Japan is serious and sincere about facing the past.

It is noteworthy that the great majority of Japanese, too, regard such remarks or behaviors from their own politicians with a sense of disgust. A recent poll shows 74% of Japanese still consider Japan-China relations important and another 69% favor bilateral cooperation with Beijing.

Since ordinary Japanese do not usually express their political views candidly in public, they could be considered the silent majority of post-WWII Japan.

This is because, despite the ambivalent nature of their voices, Japan's silent majority believe with genuine remorse that the old Japanese military misled the nation, causing tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly in Asia.

On the other hand, they are equally proud of the post-WWII Japanese efforts to face the past and often feel exasperated when confronted with what seem to be politically opportunistic criticisms against Japan from leaders in China or the Republic of Korea (ROK) .

Therefore, numerous articles crying out that Japan is "tilting to the right" puzzle them, because such remarks and actions are just reflections of one end of the Japanese public opinion spectrum and do not represent the views of the silent majority.

They also consider criticism from Japan's neighbors as representing the extreme end of the spectrum in those countries, i.e. an authoritarian government or nationalistic political activists.

The following are the greatest common denominators of the views of Japan's post-WWII silent majority which might not have been publicly announced or revealed in response to criticism over historical issues:

- In the 1920s and 30s, now remembered as the era of the Taisho democracy, Japan was the only democratic nation in Asia. That democracy was then subverted in the 1930s by the Japanese military, whose misdeeds caused great anguish in Asia and ultimately brought disaster upon Japan itself. In 1945, the Japanese started rebuilding their democracy, and struggled to return to a democratic constitutional monarchy.

- Two decades later, in 1965, Japan and the ROK concluded a basic treaty to normalize bilateral relations. After long negotiations, they finally agreed to settle the issues of war compensation which the ROK government is now responsible for.

- After another three decades, Japan's Prime Minister made an historic official statement apologizing for the war and colonization in Asia. The statement has been repeatedly endorsed by successive Japanese Prime Ministers including Shinzo Abe himself.

- The West German Chancellor apologized for the Holocaust. But, for example, has the French government ever expressed an apology for the war in and colonization of Algeria which the Algerian government has been requesting for years? Has Belgium apologized for its conduct in the Congo? In this respect, many Japanese--while ready to acknowledge their nation's complicity in terrible evil--also resent what appears to be a double-standard in the international community.

- Finally, the Japanese people raised millions of dollars for the Asian Women's Fund with the intention of compensating comfort women in the ROK, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Indonesia who suffered during the war.

In their letters to each comfort woman, successive Japanese Prime Ministers have stated: "I thus extend anew my most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women."

Although the above measures may not completely heal the wounds of all the people concerned, the attitude and efforts of the post-WWII Japanese to face the past and look to the future have been truly genuine and sincere.

Even now, the moderate, hard-working and centrist-minded silent majority in Japan earnestly hope to have good relations with their neighbors, especially China and the Korean peninsula.

Yet, there has been some conceptual change in the views of the same silent majority. There has been growing fear that Chinese and South Korean leaders, by moving the goal posts, are just fanning anti-Japanese sentiment for domestic political purposes, and that therefore nothing Japan can say or do will ever alter those attitudes.

In October 1998, then-ROK President Kim Dae-Jung visited Japan. President Kim stressed the need for forgiveness and reconciliation in the bilateral relationship with Japan. To ordinary Japanese, it was indeed a historical moment.

In an address to the Japanese Diet, President Kim even stated that the bilateral Joint Declaration, which he and then-Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi had just announced, would put an end to the historical issues between the two governments.

These remarks deeply moved many Japanese, including myself. We truly believed that a new era had come to Japan-ROK relations and hoped that those fifty years (1945-1995) of sincere efforts would bring about mutual benefits.

Yet, fifteen years later in 2013, the silent majority Japanese feel that nothing has changed. They don't intend to hold a grudge against anybody. On the contrary, a great majority of the Japanese still hope that someday something worthwhile will come out of their post-WWII efforts.

When considering historical issues, one needs to be intellectually candid. How many more years do the Japanese need in order to reach a final rapprochement? It's high time to stop moving the goal posts.