The year 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, comes to an end. One cannot help but wonder what triggered the war that took the lives of an unprecedentedly large number of people and how Japan acted during the war.
In various discussions on the evaluation of history over the past year, history was largely viewed from a nationalistic perspective.
At the beginning of this year, we were most concerned that East Asia could plunge into an endless war over history because of a gap in historical perceptions between countries in the region.
In fact, there was constant friction between Japan, China and South Korea. Still, an agreement that Japan and South Korea reached over the comfort women issue has demonstrated the two countries' strong will to overcome such a conflict. The deal was an important step toward preventing a negative cycle.
On the occasion of his 82nd birthday on Dec. 23, Emperor Akihito said, "Looking back over the past year, I feel that it was a year in which I spent much time thinking about the war in various ways." The feelings of the Emperor, who faced his memory of the war more than regular years, were obviously communicated to members of the public through his visit to Palau to pay respect to the war dead and the release of images of an air raid shelter on the premises of the Imperial Palace.
People should face the past calmly and peacefully. If history were to be discussed in a belligerent manner, it could spur a conflict between concerned countries with different identities.
Over the past year, historical issues were of a highly political nature because the period of changes in international political order coincided with the historical juncture. China, which is rapidly growing both militarily and economically, and Japan, where politics has been tilting to the right since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his comeback as prime minister in late 2012, provoked each other.
In particular, China persistently used historical issues for political purposes. In February, China proposed to hold an open debate on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II at the U.N. Security Council. Beijing even warned Japan that "there are still people who attempt to gloss over their history of aggression."
At the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in May, China rejected a draft resolution proposed by Japan urging world leaders to visit the two atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As for the reason, Beijing argued that Japan could distort history to make the country look like a victim of World War II, and not an aggressor.
In September, China held a large-scale ceremony to commemorate the country's victory over Japan in the war. The following month, China had its "Documents of Nanjing Massacre" registered by the UNESCO Memory of the World program, and proudly declared that the incident has become a historical fact recognized by the international community.
In its propaganda campaigns, China attempted to place emphasis on a postwar world order led by victor countries in a bid to cause a split between the government of Prime Minister Abe, which is reluctant to recognize Japan's acts of aggression, and the United States and South Korea.
Relations between Japan and South Korea had remained stagnant as the two countries failed to find a clue to reconciliation even though the two countries commemorated the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations on June 22. When "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution" was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site in July, Tokyo and Seoul argued over Japan forcing those from the Korean Peninsula to work at Japanese firms.
The focus for Japan this year was a statement that Prime Minister Abe released in August over the 70th anniversary of the war's end. The statement had drawn attention from the world as speculation spread that the document would be characterized by historical revisionism, as Abe had been critical of the statement on the 50th anniversary of the war's end issued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
The prime minister launched a panel of experts in February in preparation to draft the statement. The panel's report recognized Japan's acts of aggression that began with the 1931 Manchurian Incident. However, the Abe statement failed to identify the aggressor and only listed key words from the Murayama statement in his own statement.
In a speech this past November, Prime Minister Abe praised his own statement saying, "The statement is barely talked about now. I was able to work out a statement that can be shared by many members of the public."
However, serious questions remain about what Abe said. The Abe statement is characterized by defensive expressions aimed at preventing fresh friction. China and South Korea reacted to the statement in a restrained manner not because of the contents of the statement themselves but largely because of changes in China's foreign policy as a result of the country's economic slowdown and requests by the United States that is worried about discord between Tokyo and Seoul.
Historian Kanichi Asakawa, who went to the United States during the mid-Meiji Era and became the first Japanese national to become a professor at Yale University, published "Nihon no Kaki" ("Crisis for Japan") in 1909 after the Japanese-Russo War (1904-1905). In the book, Asakawa warned that the international community is critical of Japan for beginning to illicitly use South Manchuria for its own profit after the Japanese-Russo War although Japan fought the war under the slogan of defending China's territorial integrity and ensuring the equality of opportunity for major powers.
"The ill feelings that the world harbored toward Russia before the war turned into ill feelings toward Japan. The sympathy that the world expressed with Japan has now turned into its sympathy with China," the book partly reads.
Asakawa predicted that if Japan continued to betray Asian countries' trust, it would eventually cause Japan and the United States to fight each other. It is necessary to keep in mind that Japan's invasion of China did not suddenly began with the Manchurian Incident but that seeds for the act of aggression had been planted long before then.
Disputes over historical perceptions are likely to continue to smolder even after the juncture year passes. Even if China is to change its policy toward Japan, it is difficult to believe that Beijing will abandon using history as a diplomatic tactic. Japan's diplomatic authorities are wary that China might aim to have sites related to the Japanese military's Unit 731, a research and development organization of biological and chemical warfare, registered as a World Heritage site.
Japan being humble about its past mistakes is never a masochistic view of history. Rather, if Japan bravely confronts its past mistakes, it will increase the country's morality and bolster its position in the international community. Such an attitude will certainly lead to reconciliation between countries in East Asia.