Bid for permanent seat: Why Japan’s apologies always fall flat

Yoshibumi Wakamiya – The Asahi Shimbun

05/05/2005
South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun seems to be very fond of Germany. When he visited Berlin in April, he openly praised Germany, saying how he respects the way it has settled its past and recovered trust by showing conscience, courage and action.
Along with Japan, Germany is bidding for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. By lavishing unstinting praise on Germany, the president seemed to imply that Japan has much to learn from this other country.
Around the same time, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India, once China’s sworn enemy. In a summit meeting with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, the leaders agreed to seek a mutually acceptable solution to the China-India boundary issue. They also included the following words in a joint statement: “It (China) understands and supports India’s aspirations to play an active role in the United Nations and international affairs.” Down on his knees
By including the sentence, China flattered India, which is also seeking permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. At the time of the summit, violent anti-Japanese demonstrations were raging in China. Wen even told a news conference that the strong reaction by the Asian people should prompt the Japanese government to seriously search its soul.
Setting India aside, the behavior of Germany, also a vanquished nation, is often referred to in comparison with Japan. A South Korean diplomat with whom I had dinner the other day also mentioned Germany’s case.
West German Chancellor Willy Brandt traveled to Warsaw in December 1970 to normalize diplomatic relations with Poland. There, in a show of penitence, he dropped to his knees at a monument dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. The image of a kneeling Brandt has become a renowned symbol of “German apology” throughout the world. The South Korean diplomat said it left a deep impression on him. Guilty or not
In May 1985, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II, German President Richard von Weizsacker delivered a speech. In it, he squarely criticized the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler. The speech has been passed down along with the following lines: “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. … Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present.”
Germany has thus impressed the world by publicly acknowledging its wrongdoing. As a result, it is no longer a huge target of criticism by its neighbors. Japan should do the same, the South Korean diplomat said.
I agree. However, what Germany clearly apologized for is the massacre of more than 6 million Jewish people, an exceptionally brutal crime in human history. Furthermore, present-day Germany can put the issue behind it by completely putting the blame on the Nazis. Its case is quite different from Japan’s in many respects.
I tried to refute the argument by pointing out the differences. But the South Korean diplomat ignored me and only said Japan should follow Germany’s example and have the good grace to apologize. An ideal pretext
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The United Nations also celebrates its 60th birthday this year. As voices calling for U.N. reform grow louder, Japan hopes to seize the opportunity to win a permanent seat on the Security Council. But its two neighbors have raised objections to Japan’s bid. In particular, the opposition by China, which holds a veto as a permanent member, cannot be ignored.
When we think about Japan’s contribution to the United Nations, Japan’s wish is not unreasonable. However, we must not forget the United Nations was created by the victors of the war against Japan, Germany and Italy. Since permanent members of the Security Council form the core of the United Nations, if Germany and Japan want to join them, it is natural for the permanent members to expect them to show they are worthy of the honor.
As a rival, I think China did not want to easily give in to Japanese demands for a privilege that only a handful of nations enjoy. China saw the problem of history as an ideal pretext to oppose Japan’s bid.
Actually, successive Japanese prime ministers have made apologies on numerous occasions. In particular, the statement Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama made 10 years ago on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end is significant: “Japan … caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. … I express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.” Striking visual impression
I think the apology was made with good grace. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who delivered a speech at the Asia-Africa summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Conference on April 22, quoted this statement in an attempt at quelling anti-Japanese sentiments spreading in Asia.
But, why has the Murayama statement not ended the argument concerning Japan’s colonialism and invasion in Asia? Was it because it was not accompanied by an impressive visual image like Brandt on his knees? Or could it be because it lacked touching phrases like the ones Weizsacker used in his speech?
While those factors may be part of the reason, what was fatal is the fact that speeches and behavior that ran counter to the statement popped up one after another in Japan and canceled out the apology’s positive effects.
Conversely, what left a striking visual impression was the image of Koizumi visiting Yasukuni Shrine clad in a formal crested kimono. Class-A war criminals who were held responsible and executed for Japan’s military aggression are also enshrined there. Given this fact, no matter what Koizumi’s true intentions, his behavior gives the opposite impression from Germany’s. The way Germany thoroughly condemned the Nazis was persuasive. By contrast, Japan did a poor job condemning its own past behavior.
Currently, Chinese nationalism is much stronger than Japan’s. It is also true that the anti-Japanese movement in China also reflects many domestic developments that are plaguing the country.
China’s domestic circumstances that allowed the idea that “patriotism cannot be convicted” to get out of control are sure to keep troubling Japan into the future.
That is all the more why Japan is urged to appease its angry neighbor while saying what needs to be said at the same time. Japan’s wisdom and magnanimity are being put to the test.
Last fall, when Japan clarified its intention to become a permanent member of the Security Council, it could have used its ingenuity to seek China’s support there and then. For example, it could have seized the opportunity to propose with good grace a way to remember the war dead that is acceptable to the people of Asia.
It is fine to reiterate the Murayama statement. But it is time that Koizumi came up with a more potent strategy.
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The author heads The Asahi Shimbun’s editorial board.

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