Living in South Korea, I am exposed to uniformly negative criticism of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. Labeling Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as a “Profane Pilgrimage” (Lee Sung-Yoon, New York Times, January 6, 2014) is one of the milder epithets to describe the Japanese leader, who seems determined to break postwar, anti-nationalist taboos and to assert an independent, sovereign Japan.
I offer a contrarian view that Abe is potentially stimulating a healthy, democratic debate about national history and identity. A more independent, reflexive Japan, which shows pride in its accomplishments and awareness of its faults, is more likely to tackle difficult issues and to take global responsibility.
The love of one’s own—whether that be family, community, religion, or nation—is a beautiful, powerful, and dangerous force, argues a venerable philosophical tradition. A sense of belonging, identity and affection can be nurtured from a small group to the whole of humanity. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) writes, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” Conversely, Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) warns that collective identity or nationalism can become inflamed and pathological, because of perceived frustrations and humiliations.
Japan experienced the pathological form of nationalism in the early twentieth century: military officers, who considered their nation humiliated by western imperialists, sought to claim an even greater empire in Asia. (Ironically, the military campaign was helped by the Korean assassination of Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and an opponent of the militarists.) In the postwar era, nationalist expressions have been sharply curtailed, including a constitutional ban on a legitimate military (Article 9) and a social taboo against the Yasukuni Shrine (which houses the spirits of the war dead, including convicted war criminals). For years, self-identified nationalists have protested limitations to their country’s autonomy, but they were opposed by internationalist-minded, anti-militarist mainstream media, academics, and public.
Like the former Ronald Reagan (USA) and the current Vladimir Putin (Russia), Abe seeks to restore national pride and strength. He has declared “Restoration of Sovereignty Day” to mark April 28, 1952 (when the Allied occupation ended in mainland Japan); introduced a national secrecy law to share intelligence with allies; defended nuclear power plants for energy independence; and proposed amending Article 9.
Unlike Putin, Abe operates within a plural, democratic system, where his policies are vigorously disputed by other politicians, media and academics. The editors of the Yomiuri and Asahi newspapers have called for a secular, national memorial to replace the Shinto-oriented Yasukuni Shrine. A January 2014 poll found that 53% of respondents disapproved of the recent visit to the shrine by Abe, mainly because of the harm to Japan’s foreign relations.
Similar to President Reagan in the USA, Prime Minister Abe’s specific policies often lack popular support, but the man himself, and the ideal of a strong, autonomous nation, resonates with the public. Reagan left a complex, controversial legacy; but at his best, he reconciled American nationalism with inclusive, forward-looking policies, such as amnesty for illegal immigrants (1986), apology and reparations to interned Japanese-Americans (1988), and peacemaking with Soviet Premier Gorbachev. Many Americans would have viscerally opposed amnesty for foreign law-breakers, apology for wartime actions, or negotiations with communists. Reagan helped Americans to come to terms with their complex past and present, to show generosity to others, and to compromise for the larger good.
Abe has the potential to follow Reagan’s path. Like previous prime ministers, Abe has maintained the 1995 apology of Prime Minister Tomoiichi Murayama over Japan’s wartime aggression. He could also resurrect Murayama’s compensation for former comfort women, the Asian Women’s Fund, which was accepted by most of Japan’s neighbors, except China and the two Koreas.
The construction of a reflexive, liberal-minded nationalism benefits from a degree of mutual understanding and cooperation. Reagan was not relentlessly criticized by activists, but persuaded by members of his own party, especially Wyoming Senator Alan K. Simpson, who shared his story of friendship with a Japanese-American internee. Like Reagan, a proud nationalist like Abe would be more swayed by heart-felt persuasion than by caustic criticism. An Alan Simpson-role may be played by Korean-Japanese residents, more than a million strong, many of whom have achieved prosperity in postwar Japan (e.g., Lotte Conglomerate) and express affection for both countries. It may also be played by the millions of Japanese who appreciate Korean language and culture, including the First Lady Akie Abe.
An essential step is to move beyond the stance of the humiliated victim, a trap that obstructs reflection and debate. Narratives of victimhood prevent adherents from coming to terms with their own histories and injustices. The counterparts to Japanese activists who downplay government complicity in the wartime trafficking of comfort women are Korean activists who downplay complicity from their countrymen. However, as documented by historians (e.g., C. Sarah Soh, Katharine Moon), many patriarchal families sold or drove away low-status daughters, who were then pressed into prostitution by Korean brokers and government officials. During and after the Korean War, South Korean officials again recruited destitute women and established comfort stations to service foreign soldiers. During the Vietnam War, thousands of Vietnamese women were sexually assaulted and impregnated by foreign soldiers, including South Koreans. Fleeing desperate poverty, North Korean women are the most recent objects of sexual coercion and trafficking in China.
The stance of the oppressed also prevents meaningful negotiation and compromise with the erstwhile oppressor. The prevailing view, as editorialized in the Korea Herald (February 4, 2014), is “to stand firm, allow no compromise and work with all members of the international community to raise awareness about Japan’s shameful past and condemn its refusal to take due responsibility.” Korean advocates have consistently rejected reconciliation offers from even the most progressive, sympathetic politicians in Japan. In 1995, a Japanese governing coalition, led by Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, specifically apologized to the comfort women and established the Asian Women’s Fund, with public donations and state funds, to offer monetary compensation and health and welfare support to the surviving victims. However, victims’ advocates firmly rejected any “humanitarian” aid and demanded that the Japanese government accept criminal legal responsibility and official reparations. In March 2012, before the current bilateral crisis, advocates rejected another proposal for humanitarian aid from the progressive, Democratic Party-led government.
Over the past decades, the Korean government and activists have spent enormous monies and efforts to criticize Japan. The current China-Korea joint campaign threatens to further humiliate the Japanese people and to deepen the vicious cycle of mutual grievance and pathological nationalism. It would be a wiser, more effective strategy to reach out to Japanese leaders and citizens and to discuss how to further justice for all. A revived Asian Women’s Fund, supported by Japan, South Korea and other governments, could offer meaningful recognition, compensation and support to all victims of sexual trafficking in Asia.
Memories of victimhood need not lead to a perpetual cycle of bitterness and rage. Suffering can also make us more understanding of the suffering of others, and to recognize the beauty and power of grace. Let us show a generosity of spirit to those around us.
This work was supported by Hanyang University Research Fund.