On December 7, 1970 in Warsaw, Poland, West Germany’s Prime Minister Willy Brandt laid a wreath and fell to his knees at a monument commemorating the lives lost during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. His gesture, appearing to be both spontaneous and genuine, came to symbolize the acknowledgement of past wrongs. Brandt’s act, although unpopular with many domestic groups at the time, received a largely positive international reaction and became one of the many steps toward reconciliation with Eastern Europe.[1]

However, Germany’s steps in atoning for their past atrocities have been the exception rather than the rule. Numerous countries with a history of bloody foreign and civil wars or genocidal acts often fail to come to terms with the past. In the case of Japan and its actions before and during World War II there are two main camps of thought. On the one hand, it is argued that Japan has taken the necessary steps in recognizing and correcting former injustices and that it is unfairly compared to Germany both in past violence and current acknowledgements. On the other, it is suggested that the Japanese have not gone far enough in admitting their faults and compensating those who suffered under their abuse.

Admittedly, I lean toward the belief that the Japanese government can do more. In fact, I believe the current government has to do more if they are committed to deescalating current tensions and promoting peace in the region. Of course, many Japanese statesmen since World War II’s end have admitted to the suffering caused by Japan and either expressed their regret or apologized for their country’s wrongdoings. Most well-known is the resolution passed by the House of Representatives in the Diet under Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995. It stated

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, this House offers its sincere condolences to those who fell in action and victims of wars and similar actions all over the world.

Solemnly reflecting upon many instances of colonial rule and acts of aggression in the modern history of the world, and recognizing that Japan carried out those acts in the past, inflicting pain and suffering upon the peoples of other countries, especially in Asia, the Members of this House express a sense of deep remorse.[2]

Yet even though Mr. Abe’s Cabinet states they hold the same stance as previous Cabinets on the issue, their commitment to such statements and beliefs is questionable. For starters, Mr. Abe explicitly shared a desire to revise aspects of previous statements in years past. More recently, his Cabinet’s attempts to change textbooks to downplay Japanese military actions and his visit to Yasukuni Shrine portray a government concerned more with ramping up nationalism than righting past wrongs. Mr. Abe says that “Japan must never wage a war again” and their forces should only be used to promote peace.[3] However, if he fails to recognize his country’s aggressions and atrocities for what they were in the past, what are the odds that he will recognize those in the future?

Understandably it is unfair and impractical to place the burden of Asia’s peace on Japan’s shoulders and to derive such peace from a complete acceptance of wrongdoing by Mr. Abe. Other countries, specifically China and South Korea, must also do their part in avoiding a misconstrued history that further fans the flames of hatred. Yet it often takes a bigger person to rise above petty posturing and finger pointing (such as those currently plaguing the region) and admit their faults. Rather than a visit to both Yasukuni and Chinreisha, as Mr. Abe did last year, a visit only to Chinreisha, a “remembrance memorial to pray for the souls of all the people regardless of nationalities who lost their lives in the war,” would do more for peace.[4] Going even further he could once and for all denounce the use of “comfort women” during the War and offer direct compensation to the victims. The very popular Mr. Abe has a number of opportunities to set aside his nationalistic tendencies and surprise everyone.

Acknowledging my own country’s history, I recognize there are extreme difficulties to overcome. It was not until 1988 that American lawmakers and President Ronald Regan signed legislation that compensated and formally apologized to more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent; the victims of forced internment during World War II.[5]  Furthermore, the American government has yet to formally apologize for the use of atomic bombs against Japan during the War. Yet regardless of the difficulty, future peace needs humility as shown by Willy Brandt, a humility that allows us to stare straight into the horrors of our past and say to the world, “I’m sorry.”

Sean Mulvihill

Further readings and opinions:

http://thediplomat.com/2014/02/japan-should-follow-germany/

http://thediplomat.com/2013/10/japans-history-problem/

http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/prime-minister-abe-youre-no-willy-brandt-9874



[1]Lanoszka, Alexander. “Prime Minister Abe, You’re No Willy Brandt.” The National Interest, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

[2]           MOFA. “Prime Minister’s Address to the Diet: ‘Resolution to Renew the Determination for Peace on the Basis of Lessons Learned from History.’” 9 June 1995. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

[3]               Abe, Shinzo. “Pledge for everlasting peace.” Speeches and Statements by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 26 Dec. 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

[4]               Ibid.

[5]           Qureshi, Bilal. “From Wrong To Right: A U.S. Apology For Japanese Internment.” NPR: All Things Considered. 9 Aug. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.