In making clear that his government will not revise an official 1993 apology to foreign women forced to work in World War II military brothels, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a major step to defang some of the strongest foreign criticism of his supposedly dangerous nationalism. Ambiguous and provocative remarks by Japanese officials over the past year that Abe might seek to reject the landmark Kono statement were eagerly seized upon by Beijing and Seoul, along with liberal critics in America, to prove that Abe was a historical revisionist intent on whitewashing Japan’s war crimes. In their eyes, this was just part of a master plan to move Japan towards an aggressive nationalism that would be used for dramatic remilitarization and more assertive foreign policies.
Such was always fantasy thinking, yet it served to consume much of the debate over Abe’s reform plans for Japan and also was a pretext for both Beijing and Seoul to further limit relations, along with Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine last December. Most observers conveniently ignored that Abe’s goal was much broader: to move Japan into a new era marked by economic reform (which has been only partly successful) and a new foreign policy realism in the light of China’s rise. Instead, it was all to easy to smear the leader of perhaps Asia’s most pacifist society in order to keep Japan in a box that applied to it different rules than other nations.
There is no doubt that Abe has appointed some narrow-minded nationalists to symbolically important positions like the board of the national broadcaster, NHK. Like all politicians, he and some of his ministers have said stupid things. But liberal American commentators who searched behind every statement for the bloody shirt of fascism were guilty of a voyeurism that revealed more about their deepest feelings about Japan than any reality. In making clear that his government is, at least for now, as realistic about history as his critics were delusional, Abe should have put paid to the grosser defamations of his character. Perhaps he will reveal his true stripes in a few years’ time, but more likely, his critics have already revealed theirs.