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70 Years On: Japan’s Role in WWII Continues to Haunt Ties with Beijing

The memorials surrounding the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War have revealed the deep-rooted political fault lines that mark the Asia-Pacific’s contemporary identity. Decades on from the largest clash of military forces ever seen, old wounds remain salient even in the era of increased Asian economic interdependence.

In north-east Asia, the events of that period are still very much alive in Sino-Japanese relations. Unlike in Europe where, apart from the tensions in Greece, Germany has been rehabilitated in the eyes of its neighbours, Japan’s intentions are treated with deep suspicion by China.


The Allied occupation of Japan

The role of the United States cannot be ignored. Unlike in Ally-occupied Germany, Emperor Hirohito, the spiritual and wartime leader of Imperial Japan’s armed forces, was given immunity from prosecution by Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur. When Australia and Great Britain protested, owing to the treatment of their POWs, the administration of Harry S Truman cited the need to legitimize the allied occupation in the eyes of the Japanese public via Hirohito. It was believed that the rehabilitation of Japan was necessary to secure north-east Asia from the Soviet Union.

Further to this, the war crimes committed in Mainland China by the Imperial Japanese Army using chemical and biological weapons were also suppressed. Officers and scientists from the infamous medical research Unit 731 were brought into US research programs as the threat from the Soviet Union became more acute. This was a process very different to the de-Nazification of Germany.

As a result, the Asian equivalent of the Nuremburg tribunals, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), was not granted the remit of its European counterpart. 25 Class A war criminals were found guilty and executed but several people within the imperial establishment escaped prosecution and returned to life in universities, business and politics. These figures sought to shape popular opinion, presenting WWII as a war of Asian liberation against European colonialism. An important example of this process is Nobusuke Kishi, veteran of the occupation of Manchuria, the 57th Prime Minister of Japan and the grandfather of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.16449761967_2efd6a9187_z

Thus there exists space politically for historical revisionism by Japanese nationalists. These opinions though rejected by the majority of the Japanese public are nonetheless a feature of the political landscape and relations with China.


Revisionist attitudes in Japan

In the face of the rising military and economic power of China, Japan under Shinzo Abe is seeking to reform and, in the view of many domestically, undermine the pacifist restrictions placed on the state by the Ally-drafted constitution. The reforms would allow the Self Defence Forces to be deployed to aid the UN Command on the Korean peninsula or to conduct maritime patrols in the increasingly tense South China Sea, effectively ‘normalizing’ Japan as a military power.15643475529_d4f2ba906f_z

Since coming to power, Abe has courted controversy and faced increased criticism, not just of his defence reforms, but of his wider world view vis-à-vis Japan’s wartime role. In an address to a joint session of the US Congress in April, Shinzo Abe apologized for the deaths of US service personnel during the Pacific campaign but neglected to apologize for the use of Chinese and Korean ‘comfort women’ by Imperial Japanese forces during the same period.

More recently, during the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Abe’s speech failed to mention Japan’s non-nuclear principles, which underpin the nation’s belief that the state will never possess, manufacture or allow nuclear weapons within the home islands. Later in an ill-timed comment, Defence Minister Nakatani said that the legislation currently passing through the Diet would theoretically allow the JSDF to transport US nuclear weapons in a major crisis.

The Abe administration later refuted these comments, declaring at the Nagasaki commemoration that Japan sought a nuclear-free world.  Nonetheless, opposition leaders, domestic social media and survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were quick to pounce on what they saw as another example of Abe’s revisionist worldview. During the commemorations of Japan’s surrender, Emperor Akihito was seen to subtly rebuke Abe by going further than the prime minister in offering “heartfelt sorrow” for the actions of the Japanese Empire and for the violence inflicted.

While the US broadly supports the ‘normalizing’ of Japan as a military actor in view of a rising China, few in the US wish to be associated with the nationalist sentiment. In October 2013, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel deliberately avoided paying respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. This Meiji era Shinto shrine houses the souls of Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals and Taiwanese and Korean conscripts, much to living relatives’ dismay.

Visits in the past by Japanese leaders have sparked outrage and been viewed as tacit rebukes of perceptions of Japan as an aggressor in Asia.

That US officials instead chose the secular Chidorigafuchi cemetery was seen as seeking to nudge Japanese leaders away from visits to the shrine. In recent years, Yasukuni has become a lightning rod both for Japanese nationalists and Chinese criticism alike, due to the Class A war criminals housed within. When Prime Minister Abe visited Yasukuni two months later, the visit sparked outrage in China and South Korea.


Sino-Japanese relations under Xi

For China, the actions of Japan during WWII remain a flashpoint, and Shinzo Abe a persona non grata. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has in recent times based its legitimacy on the economy and rising living standards. However, prior to this period, the CCP under Mao Zedong based its legitimacy on rebuilding China and driving foreign forces, especially Japan from the mainland and we are seeing a return of this sentiment.

Thus as the ceremonies commemorating Japan’s defeat occur, Beijing has shown no qualms in using Japan, and Shinzo Abe in particular, as a source of renewed legitimacy for the CCP.15626629179_08b26e27a0_z

As vice president, Xi Jinping was chair of the policymaking committee, managing China’s response to the East China Sea dispute in September 2012. China responded aggressively to Japan during this period by flooding the disputed waters with Chinese fishing vessels to pressure Japan on its territorial claims. There were also mass riots directed against symbols of Japan’s economic influence in cities and invocations of the Second World War and national humiliation.

This trend has continued since Xi assumed the presidency, with China behaving increasingly assertively, especially concerning perceptions of Japan. On September 3, China held one of the largest military parades in recent memory in Tiananmen Square, showcasing the latest technology being employed by the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ in a move widely viewed as major show of force to Japan. Chinese state media depicts Japan’s defence reforms as symptomatic of a state on the edge of war, with Shinzo Abe the successor to Japan’s wartime leader Hideki Tojo. Decisions by Shinzo Abe to attend the Yasukuni Shrine and revisionist attitudes towards comfort women have merely played into Beijing’s hands to rally domestic sentiment and in the face of an increasingly assertive China. These trends will likely continue.


  • John Pollock

    John Pollock holds a Master of Arts in International Security and Terrorism from the University of Nottingham. Since graduation he has worked in Brussels and London focusing on international relations. His areas of research are on security and foreign policy issues facing China, Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific.

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John Pollock
John Pollock holds a Master of Arts in International Security and Terrorism from the University of Nottingham. Since graduation he has worked in Brussels and London focusing on international relations. His areas of research are on security and foreign policy issues facing China, Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific.