Featured Writing

Abe’s Avoidance of the Past

August 19, 2015

Copyright The New York Times

Abe’s Avoidance of the Past




Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

TOKYO — For months, speculation built in East Asia in the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, which ended World War II.

Would the new, conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who wants Japan to play a more assertive role on the world stage, address questions of wartime responsibility and guilt in a different way than his predecessors had?

In the end, Mr. Abe said little on Friday that was new. He prevaricated on the causes of the war and on the exact nature of the worst of Japan’s atrocities — from the forced recruitment of thousands of so-called comfort women, or sex slaves, from Korea and China, to the devastating military tactics employed to subjugate the country’s neighbors. Rather than apologize in personal terms, Mr. Abe was content to cite the apologies of his predecessors, before stating that it was unreasonable either for today’s young, or for future generations of Japanese, to have to feel guilty about events that took place long before their birth.

It’s no surprise that Mr. Abe’s speech elicited strong and immediate criticism from China and South Korea. What is more interesting were the rebukes he drew from important segments of Japanese society. At a peace ceremony on Saturday, with Mr. Abe in attendance, the 81-year-old emperor, Akihito — whose father, Hirohito, prosecuted Japan’s conquest of Asia beginning in the 1930s — broke new ground for himself by expressing “profound remorse” over the war. Tomiichi Murayama, the 91-year-old former prime minister, was more direct in his criticism of Mr. Abe: “Fine phrases were written, but the statement does not say what the apology is for and what to do from now on.”

It was Mr. Murayama who in 1995 — on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end — offered Japan’s strongest official apology, when he spoke of the “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly those in Asia,” caused by Japanese colonialism and aggression, and personally expressed his “feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology.”

During its peak economic boom years, in the 1980s, Japan was also the world’s largest provider of development assistance, and concentrated most of its grants and loans on Asia. Japan played a particularly instrumental role in midwifing China’s economic surge, providing billions of dollars in investment, critical new technologies, and even political support to its communist neighbor, for example, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Time and again, however, good-will initiatives like this have foundered on the basis of equivocal language, and on the provocative actions of Japanese leaders themselves, often taken to mollify conservative constituents. The most notorious of these actions have been their repeated visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto monument to the country’s modern war dead, including numerous officers who were tried after Japan’s defeat as so-called Class-A war criminals.

Mr. Abe occupies a singular and complex place in this narrative. The maternal grandfather he often reminisces about fondly, Nobusuke Kishi, oversaw industrial development in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, during a time of rampant sex slavery, prostitution and narcotics dealing. A far-right politician with fascist leanings, Kishi was later minister of munitions in the war cabinet of Hideki Tojo, and was imprisoned on suspicion of war crimes, although never tried, helping position him to later become an important, early postwar prime minister. Mr. Abe himself pursued rapprochement with China during his brief, first tour as prime minister, a decade ago, after a period of heightened tensions between the two countries under his boss and predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, over his visits to Yasukuni.

In 2013, on the first anniversary of his second stint as prime minister, however, Mr. Abe inflamed relations with China and Korea by visiting Yasukuni himself. Since then, in the face of stiffening domestic opposition, Mr. Abe has inflamed mistrust by revising laws to allow Japan to sidestep restrictions in its pacifist Constitution and to take on more responsibility for its own defense and enhance military collaboration with its allies, especially the United States.

Why have deep divisions lingered so much longer in East Asia than they did in Europe — where Germany was much more willing to accept its responsibility for the war, and its neighbors therefore far more willing to get on with things?

Part of it, no doubt, is because of calculations by Beijing that having a historical antagonist readily at hand is politically useful, especially as the country’s ideological mainstays of Maoism and Marxism-Leninism have lost their relevance. This has left the Chinese Communist Party with only two pillars upon which to stake its legitimacy, strident nationalism and dwindling economic growth.

According to William A. Callahan, a China scholar at the University of Manchester, in 2012 fully 60 percent of the movies and TV programs produced by the leading production company, Hengdian World Studios, involved anti-Japanese plots. In that year alone, he estimated that 700 million Japanese were shown being killed in these programs, or more than five times the actual population of Japan.

To read the whole article, please click here.


Other Writings

Dear Obama: Corruption Isn’t Just Africa’s Problem

Published July 30, 2015

Copyright Foreign Policy What the U.S. president didn’t say in his big Nairobi speech. BY HOWARD W. FRENCH JULY 30, 2015 – 1:18 PM For an American president celebrated by many of his listeners as a returning native son, Barack Obama’s recent speech in a Nairobi stadium was a strange way to promote what he called an Africa “on the move.” Yes, there were plenty of feel-good moments in Nairobi, where a smiling Obama dined with family, dropped occasional phrases in Swahili, and danced with an easy grace to African rhythms before the cameras. It all thoroughly charmed an audience eager to embrace him. But if one listened carefully, boiling down the message of the first Kenyan-American president (as he called proudly himself on this …

Continue Reading Dear Obama: Corruption Isn’t Just Africa’s Problem

What’s behind Beijing’s drive to control the South China Sea? (Guardian Long

Published July 28, 2015

Copyright The Guardian  A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Photograph: DigitalGlobe/Getty Images Howard W French Tuesday 28 July 2015 06.00 BSTLast modified on Tuesday 28 July 201515.16 BST On 26 May, CNN broadcast an unusual clip of a US navy intelligence flight over the South China Sea. The P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane – one of the newest weapons in the Pentagon’s arsenal – had taken off, with a CNN reporter on board, from Clark airbase in the Philippines, once part of America’s largest overseas base complex during the cold war. After about 45 minutes, the plane reached its first target – which had, until recently, been an obscure, almost entirely submerged feature in the Spratly Island group. …

Continue Reading What’s behind Beijing’s drive to control the South China Sea? (Guardian Long

The Plunder of Africa: How Everybody Holds the Continent Back

Published June 17, 2015

African countries’ unequal relationships with powerful international financial organizations and large multinational firms help explain the “resource curse” so frequently lamented in discussions of the continent’s economies. Rather than issuing from some mysterious invisible force, the curse is to a large degree the product of greed and the disparities in leverage between rich and poor—and its effects are undeniable. Burgis quotes a 2004 internal IFC review that found that between 1960 and 2000, “poor countries that were rich in natural resources grew two to three times more slowly than those that were not.” Without exception, the IFC found, “every country that borrowed from the World Bank did worse the more it depended on extractive industries.” 

Continue Reading The Plunder of Africa: How Everybody Holds the Continent Back

Recent Writings