German Chancellor Merkel reminds Japan to deal with history of second world war

German chancellor’s comment comes as Abe to issue statement on defeat

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, referring to her nation’s own experience, reminded Japan yesterday of the need to squarely confront its wartime past, but also signalled that neighbouring countries must do their part to achieve reconciliation.

The polite reminder came as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was preparing to issue a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the second world war, the legacy of which still plagues Tokyo’s ties with China and South Korea.

The statement will be closely watched by Beijing and Seoul, which suffered under Japanese militarism, as well as Tokyo’s close ally, Washington.

Abe has said he intends to express remorse over the war and that his cabinet upholds past apologies, including the landmark 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama. But it is unclear whether Abe will repeat the “heartfelt apology” and the reference to “colonial rule and aggression” made in that statement.

In a speech at the start of her first visit to Japan since 2008, Merkel referred to a 1985 speech by the late German president Richard von Weizsaecker in which he called the end of the second world war in Europe a “day of liberation” and said those who closed their eyes to the past were “blind to the present”.

“Germany was lucky to be accepted in the community of nations after the horrible experience that the world had to meet with Germany during the period of National Socialism (Nazism) and the Holocaust,” she said.

“This was possible first because Germany did face its past squarely, but also because the Allied Powers who controlled Germany after the second world war would attach great importance to Germany coming to grips with its past,” Merkel said.

“One of the great achievements of the time certainly was reconciliation between Germany and France.”

Feuds over wartime history as well as territorial rows over disputed islands have frayed Tokyo’s ties with Seoul and Beijing in recent years. Sino-Japanese relations have thawed a little since Abe met President Xi Jinping last November.

Some scholars say that while Japan bears part of the blame for East Asia’s inability to lay the ghosts of the war to rest because its conservative politicians often cast doubt on the sincerity of past apologies, China and South Korea also keep tensions alive because history can be a useful political and diplomatic card.

In Beijing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday said Abe would be welcome at Beijing’s commemorations of the end of the second world war if he was “sincere” about history.

Beijing has not given a specific date for the parade, but it regards September 3, the day after Japan signed its formal surrender to Allied forces on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, as victory day.

“It’s difficult for me as the German chancellor to give you advice on how to deal with part of your neighbourhood,” Merkel said in response to questions.

“But I think history and experience tells us also that peaceful means of reconciliation have to be found,” she said.

Experts on a panel Abe set up to consider the wording of the new statement say they have been asked to consider Japan’s post-war achievements and were not bound by the language used in previous apologies.

“A 70th anniversary statement issued by the prime minister has a highly political and diplomatic meaning, and we must take that into consideration,” said Professor Shinichi Kitaoka, deputy head of the panel.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian