Written by Niv Horesh.

Visitors to Japan can feel this is a country undergoing an identity crisis. After more than two decades of economic stagnation, falling birth rates and unstable governments, the Japanese have slowly become accustomed to the notion that the heady 1980s are long gone.

Back then, amid a real estate and stock exchange boom, there was widespread consternation in the West at the strength of Japanese industry and the cohesion of its society. Manga creativity and the Samurai codex were popularly celebrated far and wide along with the marvels of shinkansen (bullet trains). Lifelong employment, seniority pay and kaizen (continuous improvement) manufacturing slogans were widely cited as distinctly Japanese formulae for success; some economist analysts may have even persuaded the Japanese people that their country was indeed Namba Wan, the loanword for globally winning.

But China’s rise in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Japanese economy slumped into a prolonged recession, has forced the Japanese to reconsider the vitality of their post-war economic miracle. China today is by far a larger economy and holder of foreign currency reserves.  To be sure, most Chinese are infinitely poorer that the average Japanese. Japan’s highly urbanised landscape and wonderfully urbane social fabric still give off the feel of a mighty industrial powerhouse with little visible poverty and exemplary cleanliness extending even to the remotest of chikatetsu public toilets.

Yet, China is nowadays exercising the Japanese mind in ways that would have been unimaginable two decades ago, and as a result some observers have noted greater eagerness on the part of Japanese elites to look culturally closer through Western eyes. That means the obsession of the 1980s with Japanese exceptional identity is passé. To the contrary, Shinzo Abe’s government has set its sights on turning Japan into a ‘normal’ country, and one aspect of that effort is the argument that Japan’s conduct in the lead-up to the Asia-Pacific War was not much different to the West’s colonial outlook in the early 20th century. Another more concrete aspect of this is the move towards rescinding Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which enshrines pacifism, and turning the Japanese Self-Defence Forces into a fully-fledged army with long-range deployment capabilities.

Abe’s apology for Japan’s wartime conduct delivered this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War should be seen in that context. It was at times semantically bold in its expression of regret, and in other places phrased in a somewhat passive voice when describing the causes of wartime suffering. Remarkably, in stark contrast to what has become post-war creed in Germany for example, Abe simultaneously gave vent to right-wing apology fatigue: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise”.

As noted by eminent Japan specialist Tessa Morris-Suzuki, this was an apology carefully scripted for Western ears, and couched in a hidden grand narrative of historical revisionism, much more than it was a sincere outstretched arm to Japan’s neighbours. Nevertheless, considering that a few months before Abe’s speech it was still not entirely clear whether Abe would offer an apology at all, his speech is a step in the right direction for Japan.

Moreover, Abe’s second-term, foreign policy legacy may ultimately hinge on that apology. This is because Abe’s current moves to rescind Article 9 have touched off a popular furore and are stalled in the Diet. It is not just opposed by Japanese communists, but also by a large swathe of mainstream voters.

Similarly, Abe’s aim to resume nuclear power generation in the face of lingering safety concerns and the haunting memory of the Fukushima disaster is otherwise unnerving voters, as evidenced in popular protests surrounding the reopening of the Sendai Power Plant last week. Abe’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are honoured, have far from exonerated the venue, and Emperor Akihito has religiously shunned it since acceding to the throne. Most alarmingly, Abe’s approval rates are falling because, despite the Governor of the Bank of Japan’s insistence on the viability of economic recovery, there is no clear sign yet that Abe’s famous ‘three-arrow’ approach has succeeded in pulling Japan out of its prolonged recession.

Apart from economic woes, underlying Japanese insecurity are festering maritime disputes as well as inconvenient longer historical memory not just of the two major Sino-Japanese wars that broke out in 1894 and 1931. After all, in pre-modern times, Japan had for the most part looked up to China culturally. In the context of Asian history, one might therefore contend that Japan as Namba Wan was a mere flash in the pan.

Since the property bubble burst in the late 1980s, the Japanese establishments have lurched between emphatic apologia, a brazen national-revival agenda and a passive-aggressive stance towards China and Korea over wartime remembrance. It is no accident that the first Japanese prime minister to officially apologise was Tomiichi Murayama of the Social Democratic Party (in office 1994-1996). His tenure was unusual in that almost invariably politicians from the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), or former members of that Party, have governed the country.

Historically, the LDP is a transmutation of the same ‘developmental-state’ elites that acquiesced in Japan’s invasion of China in 1936. However hard it may try to seek emotional affinity with the West nowadays, this LDP near-monopoly on power makes Japan look more akin to its East Asian neighbours than it might like to believe. In fact, one might even argue there is more laudable substance to Taiwan and South Korea’s younger democracies in that in these two, power transitions from right to left have been more sweeping.

Japan has every right of achieving ‘normalcy’ through, amongst other means, embracing that affinity with its East Asian neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea. It is also prudent in hedging against the possibility of China turning aggressive over the next decade. But Japan’s LDP elites have to accept that their country will never be popularly recognised as ‘normal’ by Westerners so long as its leaders’ narrative of the Asia Pacific War is laced with apology fatigue, worst still revisionism. In that sense, Japan will always be compared to how the other defeated powers of that war have come to face their past: Germany and Italy. For these reasons, Abe ought to be congratulated. In his official capacity, he maintained his predecessors’ apology in place, thereby adding to Japanese credibility overall, even if his own personal preferences might be different.

Niv Horesh is Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of the Modern History of China, the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by S Kaiser/Flickr.