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Japanese Prime Minister Apologizes to China for World War II Agressions

April 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: An Asian summit in Indonesia has become the latest forum for a sudden outburst of animosity between Asia’s two major powers– China and Japan– that initially arose from a dispute over Japan’s willingness to acknowledge its wartime past.

It was at the summit’s opening ceremony that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued his apology in the latest effort to dampen tensions.

JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI (Translated): Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility and with a feeling of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind.

KWAME HOLMAN: Anti-Japanese sentiment in China has been on display in mass demonstrations over the past three weekends. The rare and perhaps tacitly encouraged public rallies in Communist China came after Japan’s government approved a revised edition of a school history textbook, which many Chinese said whitewashed Japanese atrocities in China during the 1930s.

ANNOUNCER: Nanking, China’s capital, shatters under the worst bombing in the history of aviation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among them, the 1937 massacre of Nanking, when Japanese forces killed some 300,000 Chinese. The protests targeted Japanese-owned businesses and other facilities. Some among the 20,000 demonstrators in Shanghai broke windows at the Japanese consulate and wrecked a Japanese restaurant.

Amid the protests, China’s government said it would oppose Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi has demanded the Chinese government take responsibility for the violence and destruction.

JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI (Translated): I want the Chinese government to do everything in their power to prevent a recurrence of these events. The Chinese government has a responsibility to protect Japanese people who work in China, and we want them to realize that responsibility fully.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Chinese officials have refused to apologize for the violence and have denied any government role in the protests. Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Japan needs to take responsibility for the suffering it caused so many in Asia before and after World War II.

WEN JIABAO (Translated): Japan needs to face up squarely to history. Last century, the war of aggression waged by Japan inflicted huge and tremendous suffering and hardship on the people in China, in Asia and in the world at large. I think the strong responses from the Asian people should give the Japanese government pause for deep and profound reflection.

KWAME HOLMAN: And in Japan, there’s been some retaliation, with attacks on the Chinese ambassador’s Tokyo residence and a Bank of China branch nearby. There have been some efforts to defuse the tensions, like at this meeting of Japan’s foreign minister and his Chinese counterpart in Beijing earlier this week.

The two nations are bound together by tens of billions of dollars in trade, aid and investment. Earlier this week, the Chinese government ordered a halt to the demonstrations. In Beijing today, the Japanese prime minister’s apology could be seen and heard on the Web site of the People’s Daily newspaper. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman reacted to Koizumi’s apology.

KONG QUAN (Translated): Sixty years of history have caused great harm to China and Asia. In this kind of situation, Koizumi’s attitude is welcome, but expressing the apology is just one aspect. What is more important is the action.

KWAME HOLMAN: United Nations Secretary-general Kofi Annan has urged leaders from the two nations to try to address their differences in a one-on-one meeting at the summit, but so far, China has turned aside that request.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: What explains this latest outburst of tensions between China and Japan? To explore that and its implications, we’re joined by Robert Pekkanen, an assistant professor in the Japan studies program at the university of Washington in Seattle; and Bates Gill, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Welcome to you both. Bates Gill, beginning with you, why are we seeing this sudden outburst of tensions between these two countries?

BATES GILL: Well, a variety of factors. I mean, we can look at historical and cultural differences between the two sides that go back centuries even. Of course, the atrocities of World War II that linger deeply, and more near-term issues of China’s rise, Japan’s relative decline; Japan’s alliance with the United States, and, in China’s view, a continued refusal to sort of account for its past history.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Pekkanen, what would you add to that broad overview?

ROBERT PEKKANEN: Dr. Gill is quite right, that there’s a combination of domestic and international factors, and to point out that this conflict is as much about the past as it is the future and how these countries’ role in East Asia and world order will sort out. For the Japanese point of view it’s a little bit more about future than it is about the past.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, it is about jockeying for position and influence within Asia and within the world community, given the U.N. issue.

ROBERT PEKKANEN: Correct. The U.N. and also the nature of the tightening Japanese alliance with the United States militarily; particularly, I think of concern for China is Japan’s recent– in February– suggestion although not a direct statement, that it might support United States military operation in the event of a conflict between U.S. and China over Taiwan. That’s a matter of grave concern.

MARGARET WARNER: Bates Gill, why is China so opposed to Japan getting a permanent seat on the Security Council?

BATES GILL: Well, I think again we get back to the historical issue and the conflict between these two countries about who is going to rule the roost in East Asia. To grant Japan that kind of status, a status that China now has, would be to acknowledge in some way an equality perhaps with Japan that China doesn’t wish to acknowledge.

It also, I think, would overall complicate China’s ability to manipulate and leverage its relationship with Japan as we’ve just seen it do, domestically, in order to maintain this feeling of superiority and legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party. It just complicates the whole effort.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Pekkanen, you did mention though that there are also legitimate historical issues. Is the textbook issue for real, at least in part? I mean, is there a fair criticism that Japan still has not accounted for what it did in World War II?

ROBERT PEKKANEN: That’s exactly the right question to ask. From the Japanese point of view, the issue is not really about what’s in Japanese textbooks and the writings of the Japanese textbooks have been misrepresented in the popular Chinese understanding.

From the Japanese point of view, opening up the textbook process allows a diversity of views. One textbook has been approved for possible use in a number of schools in Japan. The number of schools it adopted is very small.

When I polled Japanese students in my class about what they had learned in high school, I found a wide diversity of what they had taken away from their high school experiences, and many of them were aware of the comfort-women issue, were aware of the forced labor issue, were are of Japanese atrocities in China.

So it’s true that there is something to the textbook issue and there is legitimate Chinese concern about what’s written in the textbooks. From the Japanese point of view, however, that’s not the major issue.

MARGARET WARNER: But Bates Gill Prime Minister Koizumi said today, he talked about Japanese aggression. He used words like “feeling of deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology.” What more is China or some of the other countries in Asia looking for in the way of acknowledgment?

BATES GILL: Well, I suppose more of the same, but that doesn’t mean that the Japanese can do anything, really, that will adequately result, for the Chinese, in a real change in posture vis-à-vis Japan. In fact, more of the same is precisely what China would like to see because they want to keep Japan on its back foot. They want to keep extracting concessions and make sure that there is this imbalance where China is on the rise and Japan is kept down.

MARGARET WARNER: So there’s no doubt in your mind that the Chinese government was at least encouraging, if not inciting, these demonstrations that we saw.

BATES GILL: Well, they tolerated them. And I think they always take a risk when tens of thousands of Chinese get onto the streets in different and violent ways. But they certainly tolerated them and in many instances we believe helped even guide them forward. It helps if properly controlled and managed, it helps underscore some claims to legitimacy for the Communist Party.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean?

BATES GILL: Well, the history of the situation shows us that the Communist Party claims as part of its legitimacy the fact that it “liberated” China from the imperialists, which included most prominently the Japanese in the 1930s and ’40s. To maintain this attitude towards Japan is important for the Communist Party.

MARGARET WARNER: But now, Professor Pekkanen, the Chinese government is trying to cool these down, telling people not to the editorials have changed on state-run television and in the newspapers. Why? I mean, what happened within the Chinese leadership for this change of heart or tactics?

ROBERT PEKKANEN: Well, this is exactly the right amount of time for a protest to go on in China, I believe I’ll defer to Dr. Gill on this, before it could possibly spiral out of control and become anti-government protest.

But we’re getting back to the textbook issue, per se, and tied to the U.N. issue. I don’t think anyone can seriously believe that if the Japanese textbooks were written in a way that was extremely effusive about Japanese atrocities in China, that dealt with all the issues that Chinese would like to see dealt with, that China would then approve of Japan’s entry into the United Nations Security Council. That’s not the main issue. I also point out that Japanese textbooks are pretty good. If you would like to see your child educated, you would choose the Japanese textbooks over the Chinese textbooks every time.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Kofi Annan– I’ll stay with you Professor Pekkanen– and several of the Asian foreign ministers stepped in this week on Wednesday and urged both sides to just cool down these tensions. What are the ramifications, what are the dangers if these tensions continue for Asia and for the world?

ROBERT PEKKANEN: There are a number of grave dangers that could be associated with these tensions, continuing and heating up. For example, in China and again I’ll defer to Dr. Gill, the tensions could spiral from being anti-Japanese to being anti-foreign in general. Recall the protest against the United States’ interest after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. They could also lead to widespread civil disorder in China.

Furthermore they provoke potentially a nationalist, populist response from Japan. Notice that this morning 80 Japanese lawmakers visited the Yasukuni Shrine in an effort to show that Japan would not be bullied by China. That could also heat up to more significant tensions between the two countries. That would not be good for the United States or for either of these countries or for the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see some dangers here for the wider world?

BATES GILL: Absolutely, Professor Pekkanen points to some very critical issues at this time. I mean, unfortunately or fortunately, however you want to look at it, the United States is preoccupied in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East. We cannot let the tensions between these two major powers of Northeast Asia in a critical part of the world where U.S. interests are at stake, spin out of control. We’ve also got the North Korea question to be concerned where Japanese, Chinese and American interests are vital.

MARGARET WARNER: And they’re all three involved in negotiations.

BATES GILL: Absolutely. So it is definitely in U.S. interest, I would even argue interests of the region and the world to assure that these two important powers have productive and stable relations and any sort of quiet diplomacy to urge reconciliation of a sort is desperately needed. We shouldn’t expect a real resolution. I think these two have deep-seated problems that are going to take decades to resolve.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But if this summit meeting this weekend ends without having the face-to-face meeting that the Japanese prime minister has asked for with the Chinese president, what will that tell us?

BATES GILL: It will tell us that these problems are with us to stay in a very prominent way for the foreseeable future. If we can diffuse for a time, at least certainly the most overt expressions of nationalism on both sides through a summit meeting of a kind that will be very, very worthwhile and I think will make a big contribution. If not, I’m afraid we’re going to have a lot more problems ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Pekkanen? Your thoughts on that point?

ROBERT PEKKANEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. The United States would like to see this meeting go forth. If it doesn’t happen, it will be a rebuff to Prime Minister Koizumi, who is already facing calls within the party and among Japanese population for some kind of explanation and apology from China, and more importantly reassurances that these kind of protests will not occur again in the future which could damage vital Japanese economic interests in China.

And so if there’s a meeting and even if Prime Minister Koizumi gets scolded during the entire meeting, I think it would be something that would reassure the Japanese people and politicians.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Pekkanen and Bates Gill, thank you both.

BATES GILL: Thank you.

ROBERT PEKKANEN: Thank you very much.