The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives

by Carol Gluck, Ranna Mitter, and Charles K. Armstrong – The Journal of Asian Studies

August 2015

Carol Gluck

Japanese commemorate the end of World War II on August 15, the date of the emperor’s broadcast announcing the surrender in 1945. On that day in 2015, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe will make a speech to mark what is known in Japan as “the seventieth anniversary of the postwar,” a distinctive term that accents the peace and prosperity that followed the defeat rather than the war itself. The term is not new, but Abe’s pledge to make the past “more forward looking”—an odd idea, on the face of it—put a different spin on official war memory. His government and its supporters made it clear that they wished not only to “put the past behind them”—as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently advised the Japanese and South Korean governments to do—but also to produce a proudly positive national narrative in which wartime aggression and atrocities all but sink from view beneath the patriotic waves.

The most heated issues in early 2015—the international calls for an official apology for Japan’s wartime actions in Asia and its responsibility for the “comfort women” system of military brothels—proved once again that the political present determines the remembered past and that public memory does not necessarily move in a straight line from selective silence toward historical acknowledgment. Apologies, after all, had become something of a rhetorical standard in the years since the early 1990s. The conservative Japanese government apologized to the former comfort women in the 1993 Kōno Statement. On the fiftieth anniversary of the war in 1995, the socialist Prime Minister Murayama expressed “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” for the “irrefutable facts of history” that caused so much suffering to the people of Asia. And ten years later, Prime Minister Koizumi, a conservative from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, who angered Chinese and Koreans by visiting Yasukuni, the shrine of the war dead, nonetheless reiterated Murayama’s language of remorse and apology in his speech on August 15. When the opposition Democratic Party took power in 2009, the new prime minister, Hatoyama, wasted no time in pledging not to go to Yasukuni and, the following year, visited Nanjing, where he apologized for Japanese atrocities in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. One might have thought that the winds of Japan’s official war memory were belatedly shifting in the direction of the acknowledgment, however formulaic or laconic, that Asians and others had come to expect.

The brutal experience of the “comfort women,” too, had become known to the world in the decades since the first South Korean former comfort woman told her story in public in 1991. Evoked as an example of the violation of human rights and unacceptable violence against women, the comfort women system appeared in the legal arguments leading to the 1998 statute of the new International Criminal Court, which made rape a crime against humanity for the first time in the indisputably long history of that common wartime offense. The Asian Women’s Fund established by Prime Minister Murayama in 1995, although not an official government body, did make a gesture of recognition and compensation to former comfort women in several Asian countries. The comfort women appeared in middle-school texts in the late 1990s, and while conservatives have gradually removed them over the past decade, many Japanese possess their own opinions on the subject. In 2013, when the mayor of Osaka remarked that the comfort women had played a “necessary” wartime role, 75 percent of the Japanese polled found his comments unacceptable.

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