In 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, Asian countries that suffered under Imperial Japan's expansionism will call for international justice with one voice, demanding Japan take a responsible stance by acknowledging its past militarism.
Early this year, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert and spokespersons of the U.S. Department of State stated publicly that they hope Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet will follow the example of former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. The former Japanese leader gave a speech in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the war's end, in which he publicly apologized for the atrocities Japanese troops committed during World War II (WWII). Today, remembering Murayama's statement from 20 years ago is of special significance for understanding the lessons of WWII.
Since the end of WWII, holding Japan responsible for its aggression and colonial rule has been an important political issue in East Asia. Through the International Military Tribunal of the Far East, Japanese people became aware of the atrocities committed by the nation's armed forces on Asian battlefields, including the notorious Nanjing Massacre in 1937. Japanese people denounced the crimes of militarism, investigated the responsibility for aggression and ultimately decided to take the path of peaceful development.
However, political forces bent on denying historical realities persist in Japan. In the 1980s, right-wing conservatives demanded the reversal of postwar politics amid the country's successful economic development since the end of WWII. In the mid-1990s, the tendency became even more pronounced among Japanese politicians. Over 100 parliamentary politicians established a committee devoted to discussing history. The committee denounced Morihiro Hosokawa, who was elected Japanese Prime Minister in 1993, for his speech apologizing for Japan's aggression. The committee attempted to cover up the truth and whitewash the past. They attempted to block Japan's parliament from approving a resolution in 1995 that recognized the country's historical responsibility for aggression. Moreover, they pushed politicians to pay respects to war criminals at the Yasukuni Shrine. They denied war atrocities in occupied areas including sex slavery of women from China, Korea and Southeast Asian countries. All these events showed that there was a strong political force in Japan obstructing people from reflecting on history even 50 years after the end of WWII.
Murayama became prime minister of Japan in 1994. On August 15, 1995, he stood up against pressure and delivered a formal speech, in which he publicly apologized for Japanese atrocities during WWII.
In his statement, Murayama said, "During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history."
The speech marked a key moment as Japanese politics stood at a crossroads following WWII. The statement expressed the peaceful voice of an awakened Japanese people. Murayama's words revealed a sharp contrast to the short-sighted politicians who even today avoid accepting responsibility for their nation's past.
The historical legacy of the speech was clear. Murayama's statement promoted relations between Japan and its neighbors, in particular with China and South Korea, and helped Japan earn their trust. Murayama also took a series of measures to promote Japan's ties with its neighbors during his tenure. For example, he announced the Peace, Friendship, and Exchange Initiative on August 31, 1994. With the program as a basic framework, the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records was set up, as part of an effort to share historical records and official documents of the Japanese Government.
Successive prime ministers after Murayama, despite representing different parties, all followed the principle of their predecessor. Some Japanese leaders have delivered additional speeches regarding historical issues. However, none have matched the weight of Murayama's powerful statement.
Japan's political reputation rests on its ability to take a solemn attitude toward its history. By undertaking the responsibility of history as well as regional and world peace, Japan may finally be relieved of its historical burden and embrace a brighter future.
The author is director of the academic board of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Copyedited by Joseph Halvorson
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