Interview with former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on Japan’s perception of history

by Uzaemonnaotsuka Tokai, Editorial Writer

Hold fast to the spirit of statement on nation’s past

On August 15, 1995, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement which apologized for Japan’s colonial rule and aggression. That statement is now drawing renewed attention in the wake of fresh controversy over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s view of history, which has been stirred again by friction between Japan and neighbors China and South Korea. The Chugoku Shimbun asked Mr. Murayama, now 89, about the significance of the statement today and his thoughts on reviewing this statement in the future.

The statement is already 18 years old. What is the significance of the statement now?
To a certain extent, I believe that the statement enabled us to settle the issue involving historical perceptions. As we officially acknowledged and apologized for Japan’s misdeeds in the past, we were able to win some understanding from other Asian nations in this regard. Subsequent administrations have, therefore, been able to earn the confidence of these nations and engage in dialogue with an emphasis on the future by simply saying that they would uphold the Murayama statement. In that sense, I suppose it has universal significance.

What lay behind your decision to issue the statement?
After becoming prime minister, I traveled to South Korea and Southeast Asian nations. Because Japan had imposed colonial rule on the Korean peninsula for 36 years, I received hard looks when I visited South Korea. China, too, was steeped in patriotic education, and this bred distrust of Japan. People in these nations were thinking that Japan would become a military state again one day, and repeat the same mistakes. I felt that Japan, in order to become a nation that could be trusted, needed to humbly reflect on the past and make it clear that we were on a path to becoming a peaceful country.

But the “Resolution to Renew the Determination for Peace on the Basis of Lessons Learned from History,” which was issued 50 years after the end of World War II, was butchered in the Lower House just prior to the release of the Murayama statement.
That’s right. The statement was not even taken up in the Upper House, which incited me to act. “This won’t do,” I thought. As chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ), which held just 70 seats in the Lower House, I assumed the post of prime minister in the coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the New Party Sakigake, even though the LDP was the largest party in the Lower House. So I felt that a historical need had brought my administration into being. The role I was assigned, as I saw it, was to reflect on the past and resolve this problem. This is why I put pressure on the people around me, telling them that I would quit if I couldn’t issue my statement.

Two Cabinet ministers stepped down during your administration because of controversy over their views of history, didn’t they?
Some people sought to glorify that war. But the LDP lost the general election in 1993 and had been in a funk as an opposition party before coming back to power in the coalition government with the SDPJ and the New Party Sakigake. I guess they were afraid of becoming an opposition party again if the Cabinet fell. So, in the end, they were willing to cooperate. No objections were raised at the Cabinet meeting. From my perspective, no other administration but that coalition government could have opened the way for the statement to be issued.

In April, Prime Minister Abe said that his administration would not uphold the entire contents of the statement as it stood. Later, he walked back this comment, saying his administration would uphold the statement as a whole.
I’m puzzled by his vacillating remarks and can’t grasp his real intentions. Suppose he alters the historical perception of the statement, seeking to argue that Japan stood up against Europe and fought on behalf of other Asian nations. He will create distrust not only in Asia but also in the United States. I oppose any revision to the statement. Japan must continue abiding by its spirit.

Japan’s relations with China and Korea have deteriorated. Can we restrengthen our ties with these nations?
All of us must refrain from words and deeds that will trigger conflict. Even when our values differ, we first need to make the effort to engage in dialogue. When I became prime minister, the United States was very wary of me. They were afraid of what would happen to U.S.-Japan relations now that Japan had a leader from a socialist party. So when I met with U.S. President Bill Clinton, I first told him my view of life. I talked about the time after the war ended and what Japanese cities looked like then. He listened closely and the meeting was a success. First of all, it’s important to open up with each other, though that will probably take some time, since Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have become so frayed that we can’t even hold a summit now.

People are watching whether Japanese ministers visit Yasukuni Shrine.
Mr. Abe probably won’t visit the shrine himself. He can’t under the current circumstances. But even for the Annual Autumn Festival in October, he shouldn’t pay the shrine a visit. If he makes a visit over objections from both home and abroad, it will be perceived as a provocative act.

While the LDP won a landslide victory in the Upper House election last month, SDPJ seats fell to only one. The existence of the SDPJ seems in imminent danger.
That’s harsh to hear. A two-party system isn’t everything. A number of opposition parties can exist. No matter how small they are, we need political parties that can stand up to today’s LDP.

We will soon see the 68th anniversary of the end of the war. What sort of view of history is now needed by politicians?
First, politicians need to squarely face the fact that Japan inflicted immense damage on Asian nations and lost World War II. Some will call this “masochistic,” but I don’t believe that Japan will be accepted in the international community without a deep understanding of the historical facts and the victims of the past.


Tomiichi Murayama
Born in the city of Oita, Mr. Murayama graduated from Meiji University’s School of Political Science and Economics. After serving as a member of the Oita City Assembly and the Oita Prefectural Assembly, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1972 for the first time. In 1993, he was named chairman of the SDPJ. From 1994 to 1996, he served as prime minister in a coalition government comprised of the LDP, the New Party Sakigake, and the SDPJ. In 2000, he resigned as a Diet member and now serves as honorary chairman of the SDPJ. In 2012, he published Murayama Tomiichi Kaikoroku (The Memoir of Tomiichi Murayama). He lives in Oita.

[The full text of the Murayama statement is available at the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.]

(Originally published on August 6, 2013)