On Thursday, Jan. 17, former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, 66, and his wife visited the Memorial Hall of Victims in Nanjing, China, to pay homage to the victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, perpetrated by invading Japanese soldiers.
Like Germans vis-à-vis the Holocaust, many Japanese, out of shame or downright disbelief, refuse to accept that their great-grandparents and grandparents may have had a hand in the murder of at least 300,000 Nanjing residents. Hatoyama’s visit is only the third by a former Japanese head of state since 1995, when former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama extended Japan’s first formal apology.
Hatoyama’s four-day visit to China was, however, more than a conciliatory effort to make amends for past mistakes. The trip was also an opportunity to address, in the way of the tactful diplomat, the ongoing maritime dispute between Japan and China regarding islands in the East China Sea, referred to by the Chinese as Diaoyu, and the Japanese, Senkaku.
Prior to his visit to the Nanjing Memorial, Hatoyama was recorded saying to reporters in Beijing, “The Japanese government says there are no territorial disputes [between the two countries]. But if you look at history, there is a dispute.” His comments refer to 1895, when Japan seized the disputed islands in the East China Sea after emerging victorious in the Sino-Japanese War.
Hatoyama’s comments provoked immediate and intense reaction on both sides of the East China Sea. The Japanese government, naturally, expressed ire and disbelief that one of its own could breach the official stance. To date, the Japanese government still refuses to acknowledge that the maritime dispute has historical origins.
Some in the upper political echelons went as far as to equate Hatoyama’s admission of the historical nature of the maritime dispute to treason. In the words of the Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera, “If his [Hatoyama’s] remarks have been politically used by China, I’m unhappy. At that moment, the word of ‘traitor’ arose in my mind.”
Media commentators in China, meanwhile, praised Hatoyama’s willingness to admit historical fault. Yang Yu, a CCTV commentator, commended Hatoyama and urged that the Chinese ought to “remember the unusual kindness due to its scarcity.” The online poll Phoenix Online (iFeng), moreover, found that 80 percent of more than 200,000 pollsters believed that Hatoyama’s visit was significant.
Other Chinese pundits, however, cautioned the Chinese from being too optimistic. The Global Times, a government-run newspaper, warned, “China shouldn’t change its policy to Japan just because Hatoyama, a politician currently out of office, gave a few words of friendship.”
Hatoyama’s break from the official Japanese stance is not surprising. In one sense, he was the perfect candidate for the four-day visit: Hatoyama’s status as a former head of state lent weight to the solemn visit to the Nanjing Memorial. Simultaneously, as a quasi-political pariah (Hatoyama left the Diet party, which is now in the opposition), he had some political leeway to say what needed to be said while avoiding the same degree of critique from that a politically affiliated statesman would.
At the end of his two-hour visit to the memorial site, Hatoyama planted a gingko tree, a symbol of peace, and calmly informed the audience in attendance, “After the tree of peace I planted blossoms and bears fruits, I will come back again.”
Whether or not he keeps his promise, Hatoyama has done the brave thing by risking personal reputation in an attempt to re-ignite peaceable dialogue between his country and China. More than an official stance, what Hatoyama challenged was the same ‘hush-hush’ mentality that led the Japanese government to apologize for the Nanjing massacre only 60 decades after the fact.