The 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended the Second World War will be marked on 15 August. At a time when nationalism is high and trust is low between Japan and its Asian neighbours, anniversary commemorations threaten to exacerbate existing regional tensions.
Since returning to office in December 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has evaded acknowledging Japan’s responsibility for its wartime aggression in Asia. Many nations obfuscate their murky pasts, but Abe is systematically undermining the apologetic sentiments that Japanese leaders have expressed since the mid-1990s.
Within Japan, Abe is under pressure to use this year’s anniversary to reiterate Prime Minister Murayama’s 1995 official apology for the war which condemns Japan’s ‘self-righteous nationalism’, ‘colonial rule’ and ‘aggression’. But Abe has long campaigned for a less apologetic stance, characterizing the prevailing narrative as masochistic and damaging to national pride.
Consequently, Abe’s government is whitewashing domestic representations of Japanese history and forcing school textbook publishers to follow new guidelines promoting patriotic education. The Osaka International Peace Museum, famed for its exhibits showing Japanese wartime aggression, has recently removed them under pressure from conservative politicians. Journalists and academics exposing the government’s misrepresentation of history face harassment and smears.
Abe has also opened an assault on Japan’s post-War legacy of pacifism. In July 2014, his cabinet decided to allow Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF) to engage in battles to protect Japan’s allies – a policy known as ‘collective self-defence’ – that was previously banned.
Increasing defence spending is another sign that Japan is pulling away from its pacifist moorings. Amid growing alarm over assertive Chinese claims on Japanese territory, the government lifted a self-imposed weapons export ban last April. Then, in May, Japan hosted its first international arms exhibition since the Second World War, organized by British security company MAST. The arms fair coincided with the adoption of two bills by Abe’s cabinet to ease the deployment of the SDF overseas. Parliament is expected to pass both bills this summer.
Abe’s defence moves are being cheered on by the US, which has long pushed Japan to take more responsibility for its domestic and regional security. But Japan’s reinvigorated security role enjoys little domestic support, with only 23 per cent in favour of expansion and 68 per cent opposed to it. As Asia prepares to mark the end of the Second World War, it is unfortunate that a prime minister so unrepresentative of the pacifist majority will represent Japan.