Japanese P.M. Apologizes for Wartime Aggression

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (left) greets Chinese President Hu Jintao

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (left) greets Chinese President Hu Jintao shortly before their meeting at the Asia-Africa leaders summit last week in Jakarta. (Photo: WEDA / AFP-Getty Images)

Following weeks of bitter protests by Chinese demonstrators remonstrating against Japanese wartime atrocities, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has moved to heal the rift between the two nations by apologizing for Japan’s World War II record in a speech at the Asia-Africa leaders summit held last week in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Relations between the two Asian superpowers have plummeted to a thirty-year low following Tokyo’s approval of a school textbook that glosses over Japanese atrocities in China during World War II. Touching off a tumultuous few weeks of demonstrations and accusations, Chinese people took to the streets — some say deliberately encouraged by the Chinese administration — to protest their anger over Japanese war crimes.

In a bid to calm tensions, Koizumi used his address before a gathering of Asian and African leaders in Jakarta — an audience which included Chinese President Hu Jintao — to apologize for Japan’s wartime past.

“In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations,” Koizumi said.

Though expressing “feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” the effect of the apology was diluted somewhat by the visit by some 80 Japanese politicians — including a member of Koizumi’s cabinet — to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine, honored by Japanese nationalists and last visited by Koizumi in January 2004, is the resting place of convicted Japanese war criminals.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement expressing its dissatisfaction with the visit stating, “China has already expressed its clear position over (visits to) the Yasukuni Shrine. … Given the current serious nature of China-Japan relations, we strongly express our dissatisfaction that some Japanese politicians ignored the interests of both countries and took such a negative move.”

According to some observers though, the recent virulent demonstrations against Japan and anti-Japanese comments by high-ranking members of the Chinese leadership have a somewhat deeper purpose. Professor Hugh White, of the Australian National University, has attributed the current tension between the two countries to two factors.

“The first is long-standing irritations, and more than irritations, genuine animosities which go back deep into history — indeed, before the 1930s — but obviously very strongly focused now on the events during Japan’s invasion of China during the 1930’s and 40’s, and that is deep and, I think, quite seriously felt in China,” said Professor White on the Australian ABC’s Lateline program.

“But we’re also seeing a reflection of changing power relativities between China and Japan,” White continued, “and in particular, in Japan, growing anxiety about what it’s going to mean for Japan to live next door to this huge economically very vibrant and politically very effective outgoing power, building in China’s case a kind of a sphere of influence in the region which challenges Japan both economically and diplomatically. There’s real anxiety there as well, and so you have the combination of old long-standing historical tensions and real contemporary power-political anxieties, and I think it’s the mix between the two which is really quite risky.”

Added to these economic and political realities is the push by Japan for a permanent seat on the Security Council in an expanded United Nations, a proposal to which China is vehemently opposed. As one of only five permanent members of the Security Council — along with France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — China has campaigned aggressively against Japan’s application.

Japanese leaders, however, believe their country’s status as the world’s second largest economic power and second largest contributor to the United Nations (both after the United States) entitles them to a permanent seat on the Security Council. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has already commissioned a team of advisors to look into ways in which the Security Council can be expanded and a proposal of an extra five permanent seats has been suggested.

In order for this to occur, the United Nations charter will have to be amended and earlier this month, following an official visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to India, China sent its strongest signal yet that it would use its veto to block Japan’s application.

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, Wen criticized Japan’s application saying, “Only a country that respects history, takes responsibility for history and wins over the trust of peoples in Asia and the world at large can take greater responsibilities in the international community.”

He went on to express his support for the Chinese protests saying, “Last century the aggression war waged by Japan inflicted huge and tremendous suffering and hardships on people in China, Asia and the world at large.”

Meanwhile an Internet petition in China opposed to Japan’s application for a permanent Security Council seat has, to date, collected over 20 million online signatures. In a country where dissent is quickly suppressed, the petition’s very existence has suggested that it has received implicit approval from Chinese authorities and may be being used by the Government to place further pressure on Japan.