Abe’s apologism causes scholarly concern

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-20 22:53:01

Alexis Dudden


Editor's Note:

In early May, 187 international scholars of Japanese and East Asian studies signed and sent an open letter to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling on the country to boldly confront its wartime history, in particular the "comfort women" issue. Two weeks later, now the letter has drawn the support of some 270 more academics, bringing the total to over 450. Why did these scholars send the letter? What do they think the debate over history is like with Japan? Global Times (GT) reporter Sun Xiaobo talked with Alexis Dudden (Dudden), a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and one of the initiators of the letter, about these issues.

GT: What prompted you to compose the letter? What effect do you think it can have?

I think people are surprised to see scholars taking such a public stand because in general scholars prefer to work quietly or behind the scenes. At the same time, once we decided to write something, it was not difficult to organize our colleagues in support of the "open letter." All of us who have participated in this action share a belief that a new atmosphere has recently arisen in Japan. This atmosphere concerns us because it limits what is possible to discuss openly.

We know we are a group of outsiders, yet we are outsiders who have made a place called "Japan" the central part of our thinking lives, and so in an act of open and honest friendly intent we sent our letter to express our concern for these new restrictions as well as to show our support for our colleagues within Japan who are equally concerned.

We are also pleased that as soon as we published the letter on the Internet, a day after we sent it to the Japanese prime minister, we heard from many other scholars around the world wondering whether they, too, could add their names. We are pleased to add their names.

GT: After the letter was delivered to the prime minister, did you receive any response from Japan, either from the government or the public?

As far as I know, there has been no formal response from the government, but we did not ask for one nor did we expect one. Rather, and what is of great pleasure to all of us, many in Japan are openly discussing the letter and the issues it raises. This was our hope.

GT: Ahead of Abe's recent visit to the US, The New York Times said in its editorial that "the success of the visit also depends on whether and how honestly Mr. Abe confronts Japan's wartime history." From a historian's perspective, what do you think of Abe's approach? What do you think makes it so difficult for Japan to properly deal with its history?

The "open letter" was not so much concerned with Abe's visit as it is with an atmosphere that supports open discussion within Japan. As such - and here I am speaking only for myself and not for anyone else - I had hoped that Abe would have used a stage as famous as the US Congress to deliver the greatest speech of his life.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, this did not happen because instead he played a game of what I call "discursive gymnastics." In other words, for weeks before his speech many people wondered what he would say - what words would he use? - and now for weeks after his speech we are debating the two or three new words he used to replace the words that many people within Japan and around the world had wanted to hear. To me this is very counterproductive.

I do not think that it is difficult for "Japan" to deal with history, nor do I think that it is difficult for "Japanese" people to deal with history. The debate demonstrates to me that, with the new atmosphere under the Abe administration, we do not have a "Japan versus China" or "Japan versus Korea" problem, but a "Japan versus Japan" debate taking place.

In very clear ways, Abe's words reveal that he is trying to create a very different narrative for the 20th century than other prime ministers of Japan have explained as Japanese history. His views do not represent the majority view, yet his powerful minority is controlling the "airwaves." This is what concerns many of us who are interested in supporting colleagues and friends in an open Japanese society.

GT: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. The world has been following Abe's words and actions closely. You ever wrote that "In his bid to claim more for Japan, Mr. Abe may reap less." What kind of consequences or costs do you think will happen to Japan if Abe misses the opportunity and fails to convince the world about his "new Japan" by confronting the history?

Japan is a wonderful and open place full of great diversity and creativity. At times throughout Japanese history when those in charge have narrowed what is allowed to be said - let alone making it dangerous to publish or teach certain opinions - then Japanese society becomes rigid, brittle, and eventually tears itself apart. Conversely, when Japanese society openly flourishes it is a place that many of us around the world would be fortunate to be part of. This is what I mean.

For example, Japan's current constitution is one of the most beautiful pieces of discursive state architecture in the world. Whether or not its contents are always fully realized is a separate matter, and whether or not the constitution was initially sketched out under the American occupation is also a different issue. Since 1947, the Japanese constitution has been the law of the land, making it, in the words of one of Japan's most prominent constitutional law professors (and a colleague of mine) a "legitimate imposition."

 In other words, it is Japanese law, and important to bear in mind law is always aspirational, meaning that what is contained therein is often what a society hopes it can achieve. I think our two countries, the US and China equally, would benefit from much of Japan's constitution, as would so much of the rest of the world. And to be honest this is what worries me personally so much about the current leadership in Japan. In the face of such wonderful possibility, it appears to be choosing to limit the future. Nowhere on the planet is it a good time to do choose this path.

GT: What implications do you think Abe's stance on Japan's wartime history will have on the US-Japan alliance?

Well, unfortunately at the moment Abe has turned the region's "historical issues" into "security issues." The implications are clear.

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