The US and the history wars in Asia

Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council earlier in the Obama administration, has drawn attention for remarks criticizing comments made by Abe Shinzō and other Japanese leaders about Japan’s wartime past. As Kyodo reports:
Bader…also warned the U.S. government could be more “vocal” if Japan reviewed past statements in which the government formally apologized for wartime aggressions in other Asian countries.
Bader’s statement provides an interesting contrast to more enthusiastic accounts of US-Japan cooperation under the second Abe administration.
On the one hand, the US-Japan alliance will not be fundamentally undermined by Abe and other senior LDP politicians’ questioning past apologies for Japan’s wartime behavior. US-Japan security cooperation is too important regionally and too institutionalized to be much affected by impolitic statements. The US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will continue to train together no matter what Japanese politicians say.
On the other hand, the US-Japan alliance is not the only US relationship in East Asia and if other allies, say, South Korea, voice their disapproval about Japan’s leaders directly to the US president, the US cannot be indifferent. (Japanese right wingers say the US cannot be indifferent because of the influence of Asian-American interest groups, but I don’t think it’s necessary to cite the nefarious influence of lobbying groups to explain why the US might have a problem with tension between its two major allies in Northeast Asia.)
So what can the US do about the “history wars” in East Asia? Is being more vocal the answer? Ideally, the first step to US involvement would be to establish just what kind of comments or behavior would draw reproach from senior US officials. Would Abe’s remarks about whether Japan “invaded” its neighbors qualify? Or the US only step in when the Japanese government undermines official apologies? Would visits to Yasukuni by the prime minister or cabinet ministers draw rebuke? What about statements like Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru’s comments about comfort women? Would Hashimoto be criticized even though he is not a national official?
Second, would the US response be limited to rhetoric action, or would it be matched by symbolic gestures? Would the US administration withhold state dinners or invitations to Camp David?
However, the more one thinks about Bader’s suggestion and its implications, the more it seems that the US is already fairly vocal about Japanese prevarication about history. In recent years there is no shortage of examples of legislators and administration officials criticizing the words and actions of Japanese leaders. As Dennis Halpin writes (pdf) in a note on President Park’s address to a joint session of Congress last month, when an address by Koizumi Junichirō to a joint session was being mooted during Koizumi’s valedictory trip to the US in 2006, the late Congressman Henry Hyde wrote to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, saying that to have Koizumi, a regular visitor to Yasukuni Shrine, speak in Congress would “an affront to the generation that remembers Pearl Harbor and dishonor the place where President Roosevelt made his ‘Date of Infamy’ speech.” Of course, the House of Representatives also rebuked Japan in 2007 when it passed House Resolution 121, calling on Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner” for the wartime “comfort women.” The executive branch has done its part as well. For example, during Abe’s visit to Washington earlier this year, Danny Russel, Bader’s successor at the NSC, called for Japan to do more to encourage historical reconciliation.
A more interesting question, then, is what effect US intervention has had thus far on Japanese leaders. I think one can make the case that statements by US officials have at least helped blunt talk of revising or replacing the Kōno statement on the comfort women and the Murayama apology for the war. Perhaps it has also kept Abe from visiting Yasukuni while serving as prime minister. However, it is hard to imagine US intervention in the history wars achieving more than it already has. It is unlikely that US intervention will change what anyone thinks about history, and it may even result in more provocative statements by right-wing Japanese politicians and commentators outside government, the kind of Japanese conservatives who have found a political home in Hashimoto and Ishihara Shintarō’s Japan Restoration Party. These conservatives, after all, already believe the US holds Japan in contempt — as Air Self-Defense Forces General-turned-talking-head Tamogami Toshio writes (jp) in his defense of Hashimoto — and so would perhaps even make a point of defying US criticism. To the extent that Japan’s neighbors treat all provocations equally, more active US involvement in the history wars could exacerbate tensions.
Being “more vocal” may not, therefore, be without risks. There may not be much the US can do other than prevent Japanese leaders from changing the status quo in the history wars. Resolving the history issue may ultimately depend on the Japanese people themselves. As Stanford’s Daniel Sneider argues in a new article in Asia-Pacific Review (discussed here), the revisionist narrative is by no means the dominant historical narrative in Japan. The only way for Japanese to change the incorrect image of Japan as a nation of revisionist warmongers is for Japanese speak up when their leaders try to rewrite history, as encouragingly happened after Hashimoto’s remarks. To the extent that the US can encourage and praise Japanese behavior in pursuit of historical reconciliation, it might actually be able to do more good than if it were to step up its criticism of Japan’s leaders. Of course, whether reconciliation happens will depend on the willingness of Japan’s neighbors to acknowledge that most Japanese recognize the wrongs committed by their country and to come to see Japan’s right wing as aberrant, not representative.

3 thoughts on “The US and the history wars in Asia

  1. \”The only way for Japanese to change the incorrect image of Japan as a nation of revisionist warmongers is for Japanese speak up when their leaders try to rewrite history, as encouragingly happened after Hashimoto's remarks.\”There are several things regarding this one sentence that bears critical thought. First, there is the word \”incorrect\”. Who decides what is the \”correct\” view of history? This question in itself is a rather thought-provoking problem because theoretically no democracy should be imposing restrictions on academic inquiry in the name of political expediency. Second, when posed with questions by journalists regarding history, is any comment not reinforcing the prevalent and perhaps self-serving Western (read: US) and Chinese narratives an automatic indication — to quote the author — that Japan is a \”nation of revisionist warmongers\”? I'm not convinced that it is. Third, and perhaps most crucially, why is it important for journalists and pundits to decide which historical narratives should dominate the democratic process inside Japan — a country that affords everyone freedom of speech, freedom of academic inquiry, and freedom of assembly?


  2. Thanks Paul. To your first question, I wasn't referring to correct or incorrect views of history, but rather to correct or incorrect images of Japan abroad. Do you think it's correct to call Japan a nation of revisionist warmongers?To your other points, so, free speech for politicians, but not for journalists and pundits? Politicians are free to say whatever they want about the war, but they can't complain if others exercise their rights in criticizing politicians for appearing to be apologists for imperialism and crimes against humanity.


  3. Thanks for your reply, Tobias. I think you misunderstand my concern. Everyone is entitled to free speech and freedom of academic inquiry…at least in democratic states like Japan. Since Osaka Mayor Hashimoto replied to a journalist expressing his views on the \”comfort women\” issue, I've been increasingly thinking about this issue of policy imagery and historical narratives. Why, for example, is it necessary to impose historical narratives on free thinking democratic societies at all? Should we start criminalizing free speech in the event that someone expresses a view that runs counter to the conventional wisdom (personally I find the of criminalizing free speech to be disgusting, but apparently some advocacy journalists favor it)? Should we judge politicians on their personal views of history and not on their abilities to govern? Are we genuinely suggesting that expressing politically correct historical narratives are necessary to maintain the peace with foreign countries like South Korea, China, and the United States? Answering those questions might be difficult for anyone, but I think it is fair to say that Japanese politicians are commonly dragged into the controversial spotlight — not by strategic design — but because advocacy journalists keep posing these historical litmus tests to them. If it's true that Japanese politicians speak from conviction on these issues and not from re-election strategies as rational-choice theory assumes, it's logical to explore why some people speak from conviction. One only need read the debates among historians and researchers to understand why the prevalent Western narrative is not the only view and that history is much more complicated, I suspect. There seems to be no real consensus on the nature and history of \”comfort women\”, despite what some Western advocacy journalists and activists seem to assert. In fact, the literature is vast and nuanced and (to be honest) thought-provoking. Ikuhiko Hata (慰安婦との戦場の性、新潮社: 1999), Yoshinori Kobayashi (1999), and Chizuko Ueno — among other Japanese — talk about the empirical problems with the records, the contradictions in testimonies, the lack of verifiable proof (therefore no guilt) in the strictest sense of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, etc. Other scholars such as C. Sarah Soh talk about ameliorative complicity in the sex business in South Korea and how the Koreans and Chinese distort the historical record for various political reasons, others talk about how some nationalities (e.g., Burmese women) were willing participants to service Japanese soldiers, and others still (e.g., York University historian Bob Wakabayashi) emphasize how the value and moral systems in various countries varied like night and day in the prewar period. This list of thought-provoking issues that are debated among historians, anthropologists, and sociologists is vast. Should it surprise anyone that intelligent, well-read people when faced with advocacy journalists and pundits posing political litmus tests to them sometimes do a dangerous thing: they actually have thoughts? It doesn't surprise me. What *does* surprise me (in fact it scares me a little) is this underlying suggestion by some writers (and I'm not suggesting that you are one of them) that there can be only one truth, one history, and one way to view the past. People who start talking and writing like that seem to be torn right out of the pages of George Orwell's 1984.History is complex, but for some reason, politics dumbs everything down into sound bites for electoral consumption. I have a difficult time understanding why we do this.


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