Japan's Self-Inflicted Wounds

Impolitic remarks by nationalist politicians harm Tokyo's standing in the region.

Praising Nazi Germany’s achievements is hardly a smart move for a public figure in any country. But when a senior Japanese politician lauds Hitler’s efforts to change the constitution to empower himself, it’s hardly surprising that the world would howl with fury. Yet there have been far too many ridiculous comments from too many Japanese leaders at a time when the country’s relations with its neighbors show no signs of improving. As the sixty-eighth anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific theatre approaches, the burning question is the extent to which there is political will, if there is any at all, to bridge the gap between East Asian nations.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, though, is hardly alone in suffering from an acute case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. To be sure, he retracted and apologized for his comment earlier this week that Japan could “learn the technique” the Nazis used to change the Weimar constitution stealthily in 1933 as Japan mulls the possibility of reforming its own constitution. But he probably regretted that his comments drew the wrath of the Simon Weisenthal Center, as well as the Chinese and Korean governments, rather than the fact that he uttered them in the first place in a public forum. Aso, who is also the finance minister, should have been particularly sensitive about how his comments would play out worldwide as Japan considers changing its U.S.-drafted post-World War II constitution that prevents its military from being used beyond self-defense purposes.

Yet Aso is hardly alone in making brash statements that jeopardize Japan’s foreign relations. In May, the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, said that forced prostitution during World War II was necessary for Japanese soldiers to relieve the stress of combat.

"For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That's clear to anyone," Hashimoto told reporters. Not surprisingly, his comments were pounced upon by Beijing and Seoul as yet further proof of Japan’s insensitivities to the plight of women who were forced into prostitution during the war, and to Tokyo’s seeming lack of remorse for the atrocities committed when it occupied much of Asia in the early part of the 20th century.

The flames of anti-Japanese sentiment were fanned even further as the mayor of Japan’s second-largest city later said that U.S. Marines should actively seek out prostitutes to decrease the number of rapes and assaults by them near military bases.

Such offensive comments from prominent officials can hardly improve Japan’s relations with its neighbors and allies. What’s more, a disregard for historical sensitivities was put into action in April as a record-breaking 168 paid homage to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which honors several Japanese war criminals.

While most political analysts don’t expect Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit the controversial shrine on August 15, which would mark the sixty-eighth year since Japan surrendered in World War II, many expect him to pay his respects to the war dead sometime in the future as he looks to cement his standing as a strong, visionary leader.

That, however, is an increasingly dangerous game to play.

With no end to territorial disputes in the East China Sea in sight, this is hardly the time to amp up nationalistic rhetoric based on different perceptions of wartime history. While both China and Japan argue the need to access the resource wealth of the uninhabited islets of Senkaku/Diaoyu, the conflict is actually a result of a clash of national identities. While Japan owns the Senkaku islands under international law, China hotly contests the ruling, and fears of the conflict leading to a military clash show no sign of abating. Meanwhile, Japan continues to dispute the sovereignty of the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, currently administered by South Korea. Prospects for joint develop of resources in either location, which would be an ideal solution, still seem unlikely, given the high stakes of national pride from all three countries.

Yet this is no time to argue about past grievances. It is all too easy for Japan as well as China and South Korea to be mired in nationalist rhetoric, and to insist that their perspective of wartime history is the only truth. What all three neighboring countries must recognize is the need for regional stability to ensure further economic growth across Asia. There is enough political risk with North Korea as it is when it comes to security in East Asia.

The test of Japan’s true strength will be whether it will be able to go beyond some of its nationalistic rhetoric and seek common ground with its neighbors. Ousting politicians who stoke the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment would be the first step in the right direction.

Shihoko Goto is the Northeast Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Asia Program based in Washington D.C.

Pages