October 2, 2019

The Legacy of World War II in Japanese Foreign Policy

Men in Japanese army uniforms commemorating the 74th anniversary of Japan’s surrender on 15 August 2019 at the Yasukuni Shrine. Both China and South Korea have protested about the memorial.
Men in Japanese army uniforms commemorating the 74th anniversary of Japan’s surrender on 15 August 2019 at the Yasukuni Shrine. Both China and South Korea have protested about the memorial.

Painful issues left over from the war prevent countries from establishing normal relations.

Let us imagine for a moment the following state of affairs: the UK, France, Germany and Norway are tussling over various small islands in the North Sea every chance they get. Each of the four is of the opinion that in the light of past wars and peace treaties there is at least one island that should belong to it alone and no other country. Germany thinks that one of the islands should belong to it and not France, and then there is a tiny island that the UK regards as its sole property and under no circumstance that of Norway, and so forth ad infinitum. True, history shows that every even slightly significant island has always been a bone of contention between neighbouring countries. Let us recall, for example, the disputes in the past between Latvia and Estonia over Ruhnu.

However, that would not be all. The UK, France and Germany would also find new opportunities and convenient excuses to dig up the hatchet regarding World War II monuments and the interpretation of historical events. The UK would continually reprimand Germany for how the latter commemorates its war dead, and France would certainly believe that Germany has not paid proper respect and compensation to the French people who were injured or killed in the war. And this conflict would be fought at the highest level among all of these countries as a never-ending battle. Norway would just look on, because it would not even have a peace treaty with Germany that would have ended the war. The constant bringing-up of old war events would constrain normal trade and other everyday relations between countries and even children would be picketing in front of the German embassies in Paris and London, demanding the re-examination of public positions regarding war crimes.

Does all this sound absurd? Maybe, but it is the best comparison to illustrate the goings-on in East Asia, not only in the last few years but over recent decades. (I apologise to my readers for the inappropriate parallels.) Furthermore, almost 75 years after the war, Japan and Russia still have not concluded a peace treaty, because—surprise, surprise!—there are four disputed tiny islands somewhere in the sea. The islands themselves are of course a smokescreen for much greater interests at play.

Many comparisons are often arbitrary, but sometimes they open up new points of view, elucidate the situation at hand and illuminate the state of things. It is peculiar how peace cannot be made (both literally and figuratively) in a war that ended 75 years ago come 2020. Arguments take place over the commemoration of those who died in battle, the interpretation of historical events, who should apologise to whom, what for and how, and how much compensation should be paid. From textbooks to constitution and from religious shrines to the interpretation of wartime events—all are haunted by the legacy of World War II.

In some respects, it is unbelievable how quickly the World War II card is slapped on the table every time some trade or foreign-policy issue arises between Japan, China or South Korea. Tensions have not eased and the parties have not been able or willing to untie this knot for years. It is often difficult to understand whether there was first an issue with trade relations and then with visiting a shrine commemorating war victims, or vice versa.

In July 2019, Moon Jae-in, president of South Korea, launched a trade dispute with Japan and again dusted off the topic of how Japan had used Koreans as forced labour during World War II. Trade relations have reached a stalemate, but playing the history card is always the sure way to go and serves as a means to earn political credit.

Relations between China and Japan do not offer a much better example. Matteo Dian, senior assistant professor in the international relations of East Asia at the University of Bologna, has provided a comprehensive overview of how the shaping of collective memory narratives is channelled into relations between countries.1 He explains that, until the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989, the Japanese had seen themselves primarily as victims of the events of World War II, but after the economic bubble burst and the balance of political power changed in the world, the need arose to see themselves in a different role in the wartime events and a desire emerged to form collaborative relations with neighbouring countries. In the past 30 years, history has taken a back seat and China is seen only as an economic competitor. At the same time, the shaping of China’s collective memory narrative has proved fruitful, with Japan being depicted as a threat to China—it is claimed that, whenever one turns on the TV in China, one can find a WWII-themed propaganda film in which the villainous Japanese commit all kinds of atrocities.

Thus, it can be claimed that the effects of World War II and the events preceding it (such as the Japanese occupation of Korea, the foundation of the Manchukuo puppet state and the invasion of China in 1937) are still very much felt in the region and they are always available as a pretext in various issues. Interpretations of the legacy of World War II also depend on different topics, of which I will focus on three.

 “Comfort Women”

It is hard to imagine a crueller fate than that suffered by the women who are euphemistically called “comfort women” (慰安婦, ianfu, in Japanese), but the term literally stands for sex slaves. Those who wish to bear witness to the endless pain of a young girl and the fathomless evil of humanity can read the memoirs of Dutchwoman Jan Ruff-O’Herne (1923–2019) or Filipina Maria Rosa Henson (1927–97).2,3 Henson was detained on the road by Japanese troops as a 15-year-old and taken to a Japanese garrison where she had to “serve” an average of 10–20 men a day and, while other women got four to five days off a month, she had no such opportunity because her body was still that of a child.

From a humane perspective, it is understandable that the crimes the Japanese military committed against tens of thousands of women are viewed as incredibly cruel and no apology or sum of money can compensate for what was done to them.4 What could possibly redeem all the pain, horrid memories and lives destroyed? Yet, the Japanese government has addressed this question for years, as has the Asian Women’s Fund, which was founded in 1994 at the initiative of the government but is managed by private individuals and paid monetary compensation to war victims. Many of them were critical of the fund and the compensation it paid because, in their view, the institution did not directly represent the Japanese government and the money involved was not collected only from government sources.

The use of so-called comfort women and the mass rape of women by the Japanese army during World War II was no secret to anyone even by the end of the war, and was addressed in sessions of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, yet the issue did not receive wider public scrutiny until the beginning of the 1990s.

In 1993, when publishing the results of a government study, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yōhei Kōno, made a pivotal statement, saying that the Japanese army had established a network of military brothels during the war, women had been brought to these via private recruiters who acted under the command of the military, and living conditions were hard. But, most importantly, the statement included a public apology on behalf of the Japanese government.5

In 1995, Tomiichi Murayama, Japan’s prime minister at the time, apologised for the damage and suffering Japan had inflicted in World War II. Subsequent years have seen numerous statements made at various levels by Japan about its guilt in committing wartime aggressions and the damage and suffering caused to “comfort women”.

Japanese author Seiji Yoshida (1913–2000) did a real disservice to the handling of the issue of “comfort women”. In his memoirs published in 1983, he described his alleged crimes against women during wartime, but in an interview in 1996 he claimed that he had lied. In 2014, one of Japan’s biggest daily newspapers, Asahi Shimbun, was forced to publish an apology to its readers for publishing false statements on the matter. The publication of false statements in a field that is already politicisedcauses irreparable damage to academic research.

In 2015, the governments of South Korea and Japan agreed that the issue of “comfort women” had been definitively and irrevocably resolved. However, in the summer of 2019, the South Korean government decided to shut down a foundation co-founded by the two countries that was supported by Japan to the tune of one billion yen [9.2 million US dollars—Ed.] to pay compensation to the victims and their kin. The disagreement was caused by Japan’s claim that the contribution did not constitute national compensation because all war reparations had been resolved by a resolution of the Japanese government in 1965 under an agreement concluded between South Korea and Japan. The foundation was also unpopular in South Korea because it was founded during the tenure of president Park Geun-hye, and in the view of some did not sufficiently represent the interests of the victims. Thus, the attempt to find a final solution to the issue of “comfort women” may again bear no fruit because, in the view of some decision-makers, the Japanese government does not  pay enough and the wishes of all of the victims have not been honoured.

Despite the fact that the issue of “comfort women” has become contentious between countries in East Asia, it must be stressed that sexual violence against women in military conflicts is a very serious issue in general. Moreover, despite international agreements and conventions, it is still happening today—here and now. For example, do these declaratory texts affect the Rohingya Muslims in the villages of South-east Asia?

The Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (靖国神社, Yasukuni jinja in Japanese) was founded in 1869 and commemorates the souls of all those(men, women, children—and pets), regardless of their rank or activities during wartime, who died in wars waged during the modern period in Japan from the start of the Meiji era (1867) until the mid-Shōwa era (1954). This causes foreign-policy issues because the souls commemorated include war criminals convicted after World War II. As Japanese politicians visits the Yasukuni Shrine every year and the commemoration of war criminals at such a level is not acceptable to South Korea or China.

The current prime minister, Shinzō Abe, has visited Yasukuni only once (in 2013), but makes ritual offerings to the shrine, usually twice a year, through a personal representative. Abe no longer goes to the shrine because his visit angered both China and South Korea, and even the US expressed disappointment over his behaviour.

Emperor Hirohito visited the Yasukuni Shrine until 1978, when category A war criminals from World War II were commemorated there for the first time. Emperor Akihito did not go to Yasukuni during his reign, but he always went to the most important war memorials of the countries he visited (including during his trip to Estonia in 2007).

In 1985 prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and his Cabinet decided to declare 15 August (the date of Japan’s surrender in World War II) a day for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. This triggered protests by both China and South Korea, after which Nakasone withdrew the plan.6

As many countries as there are that react sharply to Japanese leaders visiting the shrine, there are Japanese politicians acting as they see fit. A good example is former prime minister Junichirō Koizumi, who visited the shrine consistently each year during his term of office and privately told a diplomat that he intended to keep up the visits because only then would China finally stop raising the matter.7 China has indeed always reacted sharply to visits to the shrine by Japanese ministers, accusing Japan of honouring war criminals, to which Koizumi in turn responded that nobody—from Japan or anywhere else—could tell him that he should not pay respect to the Japanese soldiers who gave their lives for their country.8 During Koizumi’s term of office (2001–6), China–Japan relations declined to their worst level since World War II and subsequent prime ministers have refrained from visiting the shrine (except Abe in 2013, as mentioned above), because a setback to the economy and attacks against Japanese businesses in China were a sufficient lesson. For China, the Yasukuni Shrine meant that the Japanese still wanted to treat war criminals as heroes, all the more so because the Yūshūkan, located in the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine, is a war museum.


Islands that changed ownership during World War II are still sources of conflict between several East Asian countries. Some instances that have triggered conflicts between them seem ridiculous, such as the 2010 incident near the Senkaku islands in which a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats. The Chinese skipper and the crew were detained but were released soon after because China threatened to suspend the delivery of rare earth metals to Japan, which the latter badly needed for its electronics industry. It later emerged that the Chinese skipper did not wish to provoke anyone and had just been drunk and lost control of his vessel.

The five islands and three rocks that make up Senkaku (Diayou in Chinese) cover only seven square kilometres in total. The dispute between China and Japan derives from interpreting the Potsdam Declaration (1945) and the Treaty of San Francisco (1951). Japan’s position is that the islands belong to it because, at the end of the war, the islands fell under US control together with Okinawa, and China did not protest the decision at the time. However, the fact is that, since China did not participate in the San Francisco peace talks, it could not get involved in the issue of the islands’ ownership. China allegedly started to show serious interest in the islands only when potential oil reserves were discovered nearby in the 1960s. In 1972, the US decided to return the islands and Okinawa to Japanese government control, despite fierce protests from China. In 2012, the dispute escalated to such a degree that it was feared it would lead to a Cold War-like situation between the two countries.

The Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean) islands are islets in the Sea of Japan with a total area of 0.2 km2. They are made valuable by a natural gas deposit and fish reserves. The South Korean government believes that the islets belong to it both historically and geographically, while Japan is of the opinion that they belong to it pursuant to international law and historical fact.

The Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories) were promised to the Soviet Union under the Yalta agreement as a reward for opening a front against Japan at the end of World War II. When the islands were occupied by Soviet troops in August 1945, the local population (Ainu and Japanese) was driven out. The main value of the Kuril Islands lies in fish reserves and various natural resources. The islands subject to dispute—Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai—went to the Soviet Union under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, but the same document stated that the islands of Shikotan and Habomai were not part of the Kuril Islands, but belonged to the island of Hokkaido. The Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956 also did not specify the ownership of the islands. This is a sensitive topic for Russia because it has already lost the Kuril Islands once—when Russia was defeated in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. At talks between Japan and Russia in early 2019, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared that the Kurils were part of the territory of the Russian Federation and would remain so.

In discussing islands, one should also mention Okinawa Island, the population of which suffered greatly during World War II and in the years that followed. Few places suffered such severe consequences of battle. The civilian population was literally caught in the crossfire: on one side, the assailing US troops and on the other the remnants of the Imperial Japanese Army mounting their final resistance. The local population were used to gather food or intelligence or were forced to commit suicide with the threat that being imprisoned by the enemy would be worse than death. As a consequence of the war, most US military bases in Japan are located in Okinawa. Although the prefecture of Okinawa constitutes a mere 0.6% of Japan’s area, more than 60% of all American military bases in Japan are located on the island.


The legacy of World War II concerning Japan and other East Asian countries and their mutual relations can, of course, be viewed from perspectives other than the three topics covered here. It is no news to foreign-policy aficionados how extensively the relationships between Japan, China and South Korea are still clouded by World War II almost three-quarters of a century since it ended. Lee Chung Min, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in South Korea, has called on Japan’s leaders to make a bold and final break with the vestiges of the war. This would not only allow Tokyo to win the hearts and minds of Asians but also oblige other Asian countries to accept Japan as a vital partner and leader in the economic, political and security domains.9

However, coming back to the comparison drawn at the beginning of this article: could we imagine the top European powers—the UK, France and Germany—quarrelling over the legacy of the war at every opportunity, arguing over who suffered the most, whose moral damage outweighed the others’ and what source of funds was the most appropriate for compensating damage to the victims? Probably not. Nevertheless, the legacy of the war remains a handy accusation used in East Asia almost at every opportunity, regardless of whether the issue concerns an island or a trade treaty.

Complicated topics—which World War II undoubtedly is as a historical event—can probably always be misused or wilfully misinterpreted. And war atrocities must not be forgotten (far from it), but a war should not be remembered in order to spread hate or be used as means to gain political advantage.


1 M. Dian, Contested Memories in Chinese and Japanese Foreign Policy. Cambridge, MA: Chandos Publishing, 2017.

2 J. Ruff-O’Herne, “Fifty years of silence: cry of the raped”. In H. Durham and T. Gurd (eds), Listening to the Silences: Women and War). Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2005, pp. 3–8.

3 M.R. Henson, Comfort woman: A Filipina’s Story of Prostitution and Slavery under the Japanese Military. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

4 The exact number has not been determined to this day and unfortunately probably never will be; various historians suggest numbers between 80,000 and 200,000, and Chinese historian Su Zhiliang suggests up to 410,000.

5 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of ‘comfort women’”, 4 August 1993. https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html

6 K. Zakowski, B. Bochorodycz and M. Socha, Japan’s Foreign Policy Making: Central Government Reforms, Decision-Making Processes, and Diplomacy. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018, p. 56.

7 D. Pilling, Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. London: Penguin Books, 2014, p. 234.

8 E.F. Vogel, China and Japan: Facing History. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2019, p. 380.

9 B. Glosserman, Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019, p. 201.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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