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70th Commemoration Anniversary of the End of WW II: Japan's New Security Legislation and the Spotlight on Its War 'Apology'

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 03, 2015

    The August 15, 2015 commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II arrives at a unique juncture of events previously not witnessed in East Asia. For the first time since the end of that war, a self-acknowledged right-leaning Japanese prime minister has not hesitated to expand the nation's military role by introducing security reform bills in the House of Representatives (Lower House) exactly a month before the anniversary of Japan's defeat. Any small deviation in defence policy-making from the pacifist narrative of its Peace Constitution is construed as a plausible return to Japan's pre-war militarism. These perceptions of Japan becoming a military threat are made to sound more ominous in view of an embedded history of scathing criticism of the country’s insufficient repentance towards the victims of its wartime aggression. Nearing anniversary time, these perceptions gain populist currency, with media sensationalism both at home and abroad creating polarised domestic public opinion and an occasion for Japan's external diplomatic bashing for political mileage.

    At the centre of the current controversy are the two security bills introduced by Shinzo Abe. One of these aims to establish a permanent law that would allow the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) provide logistic support for any other nation engaged in UN-approved military operations. The second bill, if accepted by the House of Councillors (Upper House) after a 60 day review, will amend 10 security-related laws to make the right of collective self-defence legal for Japan, as provided under Article 51 of the UN Charter to all member nations. Until now, Japan has been unable to exercise this right to collective self-defence due to a self-imposed restriction ensuing from a strict interpretation of Article 9 of its Constitution issued during the administration of PM Kakuei Tanaka in 1972, which views collective self-defence as exceeding the range of what is minimum and necessary to defend Japan. Even if the Upper House were to pass the new security bills, Abe has said that only after a comprehensive assessment will Japan take a decision whether a particular situation meets the conditions for exercising the right of collective self-defence by considering the level and seriousness of damage that the Japanese people may suffer arising from that particular conflict.

    In the rapidly changing post-Cold War order, a limited operational military capability, lack of experience in combat zones and the dominant mind-set of staying away from global problems involving the use of military force have posed a massive hindrance to Japan's participation as a reliable and responsible alliance partner in regional security contingencies and for playing an effective role in international crisis and even peace-keeping operations (PKOs). This was most evident during the course of the 1990 Persian Gulf War, when Japan suffered the ignominy of not having been acknowledged by Kuwait in its official expression of thanks for Japan's contribution of USD 13 billion towards the cost of that war. Yet, it was only after many acrimonious and prolonged debates in the Diet that the 1992 International Peace Cooperation Law (PKO Law) was enacted to provide the legal basis for Japan to participate in UN PKOs. Subsequently, Japan contributed military personnel for UN-approved missions in East Timor, Cambodia, Mozambique, the Golan Heights, Iraq, Haiti, Nepal and South Sudan. To shrug-off the lingering sense of failure emanating from its refusal to contribute personnel to the 1990 Persian Gulf War, which had invited ridicule especially from the United States, PM Koizumi enacted the Iraq Special Measures Law on 26 July 2003 to enable the dispatch of the Japanese Iraq Reconstruction and Support Group. Although Samawah was judged by Japan as a "non-combat" zone, violence frequently erupted there. Regulations and strict rules of engagement prevented the JSDF from using weapons, which created the unusual situation of the JSDF being provided protection first by Dutch and subsequently by Australian troops.

    This brief recapitulation of developments during the last 25 years brings out the trials and tribulations of successive Japanese governments in establishing a legal framework that provides for use of weapons in PKOs, logistics support to other countries participating in PKOs, fostering interoperability with the US military, defending its sea-faring vessels and intercepting ballistic missiles. It is also evident that Japan has followed a policy of instituting incremental and piecemeal security measures, accompanied by "guidelines", to define the limits and scope of military engagement in accordance with the national interest. A lack of appreciation for this record of Japan’s efforts to play a "proactive" contributory role to peace in world affairs reveals either the absence of political maturity or the presence of political motivations.

    Concomitant with Abe's push of the new security legislation, some of his controversial statements have also created speculation in East Asian nations as well as in the US that he might water down the previously delivered statements of apology regarding Japan's wartime militarism, which has gained him the reputation of being an "unrepentant revisionist". But being a political pragmatist, Abe has partially put these speculations, of being less apologetic, if not at rest but less controversial by making statements of remorse in international forums for atrocities committed in East Asia during Japanese colonial rule.

    Thus, on 22 April 2015, while addressing the Asian-African Summit in Jakarta on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, Abe expressed Japan's "deep remorse" over the war. However, East Asian nations, especially South Korea and China, are demanding a deeply sincere "heartfelt apology" rather than offering a perfunctory lip-service for Japan's colonial rule and aggression before and during the war. The main issue of discontent and agony for them is the use of Korean and Chinese women as sex slaves at “comfort stations” by the Japanese Imperial Army. In addition, they also demand compensation for victims of forced labour employed by the Japanese colonial government and private companies. In this regard, it is worth recalling Abe’s address to a Joint Meeting of the US Congress on 30 April 2015, when he offered "feelings of deep remorse" over actions by Japan during the war which had brought suffering to Asian countries. He further stated that he will uphold the statements issued by previous prime ministers and in this regard alluded to the most prominent official statement of remorse for the "tremendous damage" meted out to neighbours during wartime aggression delivered by former PM Murayama Tomiichi on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II in 1995. Abe also offered "eternal condolences" to those Americans who lost their lives during WW II and recalled the battles of Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Corregidor, and Coral Sea.

    On 19 July 2015, at a ceremony in Los Angeles, in an unprecedented move in Japan's history of expressing repeated apologies, a senior executive officer of Mitsubishi Materials Corporation, one of the largest Japanese conglomerates, apologised to one of the surviving American prisoners of war for using captured Americans as forced labour. Here, it must be noted that in Article 14, Chapter V of the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the Allied powers had waived all reparation claims from Japan and hence American POWs could not file lawsuits for compensation. The first private Japanese corporation to do so, Mitsubishi Materials is also expected to make a landmark apology this year to Chinese victims of forced labour and pay compensation to them. This move, if it materialises, will be a major departure for Japan although China too had renounced the demand for wartime reparations in the 1972 Joint Communique which normalised relations between the two countries. Again, it is important to note here that China’s waiver of wartime reparations was a political bargain whereby it waived off the rights of Chinese citizens to make such claims in return for Japanese economic aid.

    It is rare, if not an unfound, human quality for political leaders to transcend a cost and benefit analysis approach. Wartime compensation and apology are more about moral sensitivity, including empathy, compassion, and a sense of fairness, and the importance of humane treatment of other beings.

    Japan has to balance between its two competing images: one, as a nation that professes pacifism, nuclear disarmament, human security and universal values; and the second as a nation that honours 14 convicted Class A war criminals in a religious shrine enshrining the souls of other war dead – an act of "perilous patriotism" that is interpreted by other East Asian countries as a reaffirmation of Japan's colonial past. In Japan, historical revisionism seeks to make its wartime atrocities less oppressive. This "history problem" or the construction of narratives of the past as an exercise in nation building, national identity and pride is suffused with political value.

    For Japan, it is important to portray a positive image of its past in the official discourse in order to endow a sense of legitimacy to the military profession as the country expands the role of the SDF in global and regional security. But this task has become doubly difficult because Japan is now confronted with a recent expansion of legal activism in East Asia with increasing numbers of litigants demanding not only greater compensation but also intangibles like rehabilitation of the dead victims' human rights. However, the issue cannot be simply limited to the moral responsibility of Japan in redressing the apology and compensation issue that meets the demands of the new dimensions of victimhood. At the same time, it is also incumbent on the part of other East Asian nations that they not exploit this sensitive issue to derive political mileage. For the 70th commemoration anniversary of the end of World War II to be meaningful, Japan, China and South Korea need to jointly address the issues involved through a combination of moral responsibility and political maturity.

    Dr. Preeti Nalwa is a Non-resident Kelly Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India