Osaka’s Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s justification of Japan’s war crime in forcing women into sexual slavery during World War II, ignited outrage from its neighbours, particularly China and South Korea. This incident reminds us that although it has been almost 70 years since the war ended, there are still unhealed scars that will perpetuate mutual suspicion and disunity – particularly from its closest neighbours China and Korea who had suffered the most from Japanese military aggression. Additionally, the Japanese government’s actions have continuously convinced China and South Korea they are not sorry for what they had done in World War II. However, if the Japanese government is willing to accept its history without attempting to downplay the atrocities that had happened, this will cement positive and healthy relations with the other two powers of Northeast Asia.
In May this year, Toru Hashimoto from the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), claimed it was necessary for the Imperial Japanese Army to have “comfort women” (ianfu) – a term used to euphemise sexual slavery during World War II. Hashimoto defended that “to maintain discipline in the military, it must have been necessary at that time”. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 women, many of whom originated from Korea, were trafficked into military brothels, where they suffered the most brutal forms of torture. As a result, enraged responses came from China and South Korea. Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson of China, condemned Hashimoto’s remarks: “We are appalled and indignant about the Japanese politician’s comments boldly challenging humanity and historical justice”. South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, Shin Kak Soo, commented: “I’m disappointed to know that a Japanese politician has such a poor understanding of history and women’s human rights”. On 16 May, Hashimoto offered to apologise to former sex slaves: “I think I have to apologise firmly for what Japan did as I talk to former comfort women”. However, in this statement, it appears that Hashimoto was attempting to soften Japan’s war crimes. He continued: “During World War II, neither the US nor the British militaries had comfort stations or comfort women, but it is an obvious fact that they made use of local women” and “Japan was not the only one doing so: everybody was doing bad things. I think Japanese people […] should offer objections if there is a misunderstanding of facts in the world”.
Although the Japanese government has apologised for its actions in World War II, they have lacked to convince both China and South Korea about their own bona fide. Contrarily, some Japanese deeds have strongly persuaded its neighbours they are refusing to acknowledge history. In 2001, the Japanese government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, permitted changes in history school textbooks that moderated Japanese war crime. Such textbooks, called New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho), were written by a group of staunch nationalists, known as the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai). The book included content related to sex slaves as “comfort women”; in addition, it whitewashed the Nanjing Massacre, where 300,000 Chinese unarmed soldiers and civilians were killed by the Japanese army in 1937. This decision flared up its regional neighbours: they questioned Japan’s motives and their apologetic attitudes towards imperialisation and military aggression. Furthermore, the South Korean government underlined how the textbooks still included rationalising and glorifying Japan’s past wrongdoings based upon self-centred interpretation of history.
Another controversial issue is represented by the visits paid by Japanese Prime Ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine. In the shrine were buried high ranking military officers who had committed war crimes, and the Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo (1884-1948). These visits rile up neighbours, and despite repeated angry accusations about Japan’s refusal to accept its history, Tokyo has always been ready to defend its decision. For instance, between 2001 and 2006, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made visits each year. In April 2013, 168 members of the Japanese parliament paid a visit to the Shrine and offered their prayers. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and finance minister, Taro Aso, was also one of the attendants: as a result, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se cancelled a meeting with his Japanese counterpart. A spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying said “no matter in what capacity or form Japanese leaders visit Yasukuni Shrine, in essence it is an attempt to deny Japan’s history of aggression”. However, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga justified that “a visit to the Yasukuni is the matter of beliefs, and Japan ensures freedom of faith”.
Amidst the ire reactions over Hashimoto’s distasteful comments, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a photograph with a military jet that was numbered 731. In the photograph, Abe was smiling and flashing a thumbs up. Unit 731 was a chemical and biological experiment unit division located in Harbin of China. Many victims, from various countries such as China, South East Asia and Russia were forcibly subjected to horrific and inhumane experiments. The photo received furious condemnations from Korean and Chinese media. South Korea’s largest news publication, Chosen IIbo, commented the picture with the caption “Abe’s endless provocation!”.
Hashimoto’s comment, along with past Japanese leaders’ actions, clearly reflect the deep-rooted tensions between Japan and its Northeast Asian neighbours. China, Japan and South Korea are the leading economies in Asia, therefore healthy diplomatic relations are essential to regional stability. As Hong Lei observed, “the way they treat the past will determine the way Japan walks toward the future. On what choice Japan will make, the Asian neighbours and the international community will wait and see.”
Northeast Asia is also riddled with other complex and thorny issues: the disunity and mutual suspicion between the two Koreas, the uncertainty of regional stability due to North Korea’s unpredictable regime and the looming possibilities of a nuclear attack. Still relevant is the Sino-Japanese fiery dispute over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands), Japan and South Korea’s competing claims over the Dokdo Islands (also known as the Liancourt Rocks, and called Takeshima by Japan), and the unresolved relations between China and Taiwan. These obstacles have continuously barred members of this region from having consistent positive diplomatic relations and mutual trust. Hence, it is essential that all members of this region must be more proactive in setting up good relations for future generations to resolve all these tensions. While this article is not suggesting that Japan’s acceptance of its history will solve all of East Asia’s conflicts, that would be a beneficial start to demonstrate they are wholehearted in working with its neighbours towards a greater goal – striving for regional peace and prosperity.