INSIGHT: Abe stands firm on definition of 'aggression' amid international outcry

May 10, 2013


Government officials thought they had found a way to quell the international criticism that erupted after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that Japan’s wartime actions should not be defined as “aggression.”

Abe, however, did not follow their script. Although he says Japan caused much damage and suffering before and during World War II, he has refused to acknowledge “aggression” on the part of the Japanese military.

His stance on the nature of Japan’s military actions differs from those of his predecessors. It even contradicts his own opinion stated when he was prime minister the first time around.

The source of his inflexibility over the “aggression” issue may have been the criticism lodged against him from the international community, especially from the country with which Abe has gone all out to appease.

“The prime minister ended up becoming stubborn (on the issue) because he felt antipathy to the U.S. reaction,” said an official close to the Japanese government.

The latest controversy began when Abe told an Upper House Budget Committee session on April 23 that what constitutes aggression has not been settled.

He was referring to the 1995 statement under Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that was released to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

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

Abe, however, took issue with the word “aggression” in the statement.

“The definition of aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community,” Abe told the Upper House session. “Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from.”

South Korea, which Japan colonized from 1910 to 1945, reacted strongly to Abe’s remarks, saying the Japanese leader was again denying the truth about Japan’s past.

Following the fierce backlash from Seoul, the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry worked together to prepare Abe’s answers to a question in the May 8 session of the Upper House Budget Committee, according to sources.

The officials planned to have Abe clarify that the Japanese government has never said there was no aggression in World War II.

However, Abe decided on his own to neither read the officials’ prepared text nor discuss aggression at the Diet session, according to senior government officials.

But he did say: “Japan caused great damage and suffering to the people of many nations, particularly to those of Asian nations. I have the same perception as that of past Cabinets.”

Japan endorsed the 1974 U.N. General Assembly resolution on the definition of aggression. The resolution states that an invasion of a state by the armed forces of another state--a violation of the U.N. Charter--is top on the list of aggressive acts. But it also states that the U.N. Security Council may ultimately determine acts of aggression.

At the May 8 session, Abe said the U.N. General Assembly’s definition is reference material for the U.N. Security Council, particularly its dominant members.

“Regrettably, issues are resolved politically at the U.N. Security Council,” he said. “Permanent members have veto rights.”

Japan first acknowledged its wartime aggression in 1993, when Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa became leader of the first Japanese government not led by the Liberal Democratic Party since 1955.

Two years later, Murayama, leader of the Japan Socialist Party, released the statement as head of the coalition government comprising the JSP, LDP and New Party Sakigake.

The Murayama statement, which expresses “remorse” and “apology” for Japan’s militarism, has served as the fundamental document for the Japanese government’s stance toward war.

All succeeding prime ministers adopted this policy line, including Junichiro Koizumi, who angered China and South Korea for visiting war-related Yasukuni Shrine, and Abe, when he held the nation’s top post from 2006 to 2007.

At the Lower House Budget Committee on Oct. 5, 2006, Abe, as prime minister, said the Murayama statement admitted Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” and offered an apology to the people victimized.

“I support the Japanese government’s stance (shown by the Murayama statement),” he said at the time.

But Abe has been long skeptical about the argument that Japan’s colonial rule and aggression caused considerable damage to many Asian nations.

When he returned to power in December after the LDP’s landslide victory in the Lower House election, he expressed his intention to issue a new government statement in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

At the April 22 session of the Upper House Budget Committee, he said his administration “has not necessarily embraced the Murayama statement in its entirety.”

Abe’s series of comments alarmed South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

In a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on May 7, Park stressed the need for Japan to have an accurate perception of history for peace in Northeast Asia. Leaders rarely discuss relations with third countries in bilateral summits.

Park further pushed the agenda by raising the history issue in her address at the U.S. Congress on May 8.

Although Abe is used to criticism from South Korea, he did not expect a report released on May 1 by the U.S. Congressional Research Service that said Abe’s perceptions of history could end up hurting U.S. interests, according to Japanese sources.

The report titled “Japan-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress” said U.S. officials welcome Abe’s position to allow for Japan’s participation in collective self-defense.

“Other statements, however, suggest that Abe embraces a revisionist view of Japanese history that rejects the narrative of imperial Japanese aggression and victimization of other Asian nations,” the report said.

Abe, who is bringing Japan to negotiations for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement and is pushing for a solution to stalled relocation of a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture, was surprised by the report, the sources said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga criticized the report on May 9, saying its descriptions of Abe were based on “misunderstanding.”

“Japan has striven to achieve peace and prosperity,” Suga told a news conference.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters the prime minister’s office on May 9. (Teruo Kashiyama)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters the prime minister’s office on May 9. (Teruo Kashiyama)

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters the prime minister’s office on May 9. (Teruo Kashiyama)

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