Why Fukuda should visit Nanjing

08.10.07 Publication:

For an outsider to comment about the historical issues between Japan and China feels instinctively awkward—rather like a stranger butting in on a family quarrel.

When Congressmen such as Mike Honda introduce bills to the US House of Representatives on the comfort women issue, or when Tom Lantos, chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, feels entitled to describe Shinzo Abe’s visit during his trip to India this summer to the descendants of Justice Radhabinod Pal, the Indian judge at the 1947-48 Tokyo war crimes trial, as “appalling”, the right response is surely to say “mind your own business”.

Nevertheless, this European is going to butt in for a moment. The reason for doing so is that Japan’s treatment of the history issue matters greatly from the point of view of Asian diplomatic affairs. Asia is moving into a period in which power in the region is becoming balanced delicately between China, India, Japan and the United States.

Given that three of those four regional powers are democracies and one isn’t, the democracies should be poised to dominate Asia in the coming decades. The “arc of freedom and prosperity” that Shinzo Abe spoke about when he was prime minister ought to be a strong one. But it isn’t, at least not yet.

One reason is that America’s status and influence are currently damaged by the quagmire in Iraq and the country’s violation of its own values at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Another reason, however, is Japan’s continued diplomatic difficulties in dealing with history. In other words, it is all too easy for China and South Korea to put Japan on the defensive over history issues.

The weakness of Japan’s position is shown by the way in which both Mr Abe and now Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda have had to show that they are “conciliatory” not by doing something positive but by making a negative promise: the pledge not to visit Yasukuni Shrine. It is absurd, from an outsider’s point of view, for Japan’s prime minister to have to promise not to visit the country’s main memorial for its war dead, one closely tied to the imperial household.

There is, however, an opportunity coming up for Prime Minister Fukuda to start to change this. Given his more moderate background than Mr Abe, he would be in a good position to do so. The opportunity is the 70th anniversary of the atrocity at Nanjing, which will occur on December 13th.

There is talk of Mr Fukuda paying a visit to Beijing next month, to meet the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. Instead, or in addition, he should ask to visit Nanjing on December 13th, in order to show Japan’s remorse about that specific event.

Such a visit would be controversial and painful. It would be a very brave thing to do, given the hostility that the prime minister would receive for it from right-wingers in his own party. But it would mark an important change in Japan’s apology diplomacy: a change from making general apologies, of the sort made by Prime Minister Murayama in 1995, to offering specific remorse for specific acts by the Imperial Army.

The trouble with general apologies is that they are always undermined by the debate within Japan, and especially inside the LDP, over the Tokyo trial and responsibility for war. As Taro Aso says, they are “masochistic”, but also they are part of a debate that can never be resolved. Specific apologies, however, would be exactly in line with the dissenting opinion given after the Tokyo trial by Justice Pal.

Justice Pal was surely right that the Tokyo trial was a dreadful exhibition of American and European hypocrisy: colonialists putting other people on trial for being colonialists. But in his dissenting opinion he also said that the evidence was clear about specific atrocities, including Nanjing: that they occurred, that the army’s conduct was exceptionally bad. Those atrocities did not, in his view, provide a legal basis for convicting Japan’s political leaders. But they did occur, he said.

For the sake of a firm and constructive diplomatic role within Asia, in close alliance with the United States and in an increasingly warm relationship with India, Japan needs to be able to take a strong moral position in its foreign policy. To achieve that, Japan needs to take the initiative on the historical issue. A visit by Prime Minister Fukuda to Nanjing in December would do that, in a way that would catch the world’s attention and admiration.

Of course, China might object to this idea, or might lay down unacceptable conditions before it can occur. If so, Japan should let the world know what it has proposed, and that China is obstructing it. As a result, China would be put on the defensive, not Japan.

Such an initiative would also have some merit in domestic Japanese politics, for it would have a chance of winning some centrist voters back from the Democratic Party of Japan. If LDP right-wingers object, Prime Minister Fukuda can simply suggest that they should read the words of their hero, Justice Pal, about Nanjing.

Opportunities such as a 70th anniversary do not come along very often. Nor does Japan often have a prime minister who can probably afford, thanks to his age and his political background, to disregard his critics over an issue such as Nanjing.

This European outsider should now mind his own business and stop butting in to this family dispute.