date : 14-11-18 14:33
Expert Discussion with Former Prime Minister of Japan Tomiichi Murayama
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Newsletter October 2014


Expert Discussion with Former Prime Minister of Japan Tomiichi Murayama
Agreeing to the solution desired by the victims is key

Written by Cho Youn-Soo, Research Fellow, Research Department, NAHF

On August 22, 2014, the Northeast Asian History Foundation hosted an expert discussion on “The Korean and Japanese Perceptions of History and the Pursuit of the Solution to the 'Comfort Women' Issue.” Since Shinzo Abe took office as Prime Minister of Japan, his controversial historical perception has been the cause of Japan's continued conflicts with Korea and with China. In particular, there are concerns about the possibility that in 2015, the 70th year since the end of World War II, he might issue the 'Abe Statement' as a revision to the Murayama Statement of 1995 by which Japan acknowledged the damage and suffering it had caused the peoples of Asian countries through its colonial rule and aggression, and expressed the feelings of apology and remorse. If these concerns become a reality, it is likely to shatter Japan's relationship, not only with Korea but with the rest of Asia.

The historical conflict between Korea and Japan over the 'comfort women' issue among others has resulted in a long hiatus in the bilateral summit. It is the reality that the historical issues are drags on both countries. Considering that Korea and Japan are neighbors with a history of over 2,000 years of exchange, and partners, it is a great shame that the bilateral relations are failing to move forward because of the historical issues. To address this situation, the Northeast Asian History Foundation invited former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama (村山富市and University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Wada Haruki (和田春樹) and related Korean experts to a discussion on the historical issues between Korea and Japan.

The Murayama Statement Is a Common Asset of Asia

Being present with, and listening to the speech by, former Japanese Prime Minister Murayama himself, the very person responsible for the Murayama Statement, filled me with emotions. His speech, so full of enthusiasm that it was almost unbelievable that he was ninety years old, overwhelmed the audience and moved the participants.

He opened his speech with an account of the birth of the Murayama Statement. He said that back in 1995 his first mission and challenge as head of the coalition cabinet of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the New Party Sakigake, and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) had been to try to figure out the roles to play in this cabinet and the tasks at hand. He had paid a visit to Korea and China immediately after becoming Prime Minister, and realized in the process that Japan would need to repent of its wars of aggression and be sure to clear up the past before it could gain the trust of Asian countries. As head of the JSP and Prime Minister, he had decided that the Diet's resolution to repent of the wars in the past and express its commitment to peace would be needed on the occasion of the fiftieth year since the end of WWII. Accordingly, he had 'the resolution to renew commitment to peace based on the lessons learned from history' passed at the House of Representatives plenary session on June 9, 1995. However, this resolution had faced the opposition of the LDP and ended up with unsatisfactory contents. Even submitting the resolution to the House of Councillors had been shelved. Mr. Murayama had thought that this resolution alone would be insufficient for Japan to restore trust as an Asian country, and decided to make it up by issuing a 'Prime Minister's statement' based on a cabinet decision in order to clarify Japan's feelings of remorse and commitment to peace.

Listening to Mr. Murayama‘s speech, I realized once again that the road that led to the cabinet's announcement of the statement had been a rocky one. Mr. Murayama said that he had decided to resign if he couldn't make the statement issued. Fortunately, the cabinet had unanimously approved of the statement once it had been proposed. Hence, the Murayama Statement had been born. Mr. Murayama explained that this had been made possible by strong support from a number of ministers at the time, including Foreign Minister Yohei Kono (河野洋平), International Trade and Industry Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto (橋本龍太郞), and Self-Governance Minister Hiromu Nonaka (野中廣務), and expressed gratitude to them.

Lessons Learned from the Failed ‘Asian Women's Fund’

The great significance of the Murayama Statement lies in that it established apology and remorse as the Japanese government's official position on its colonial rule and wars of aggression. As suggested by the approval of the LDP Cabinet members, the Murayama Statement can be said to be the 'final summary‘ of the Japanese government's perception of history. Since the Murayama Statement, subsequent Prime Ministers of Japan have revealed their historical perceptions by either quoting the statement or expressing their intentions of upholding it. However the incumbent Abe administration, while ostensibly upholding it, is alluding to their intention of revising the Murayama Statement. While there can be various assessments of the Murayama Statement, we are obligated to protect the Murayama Statement because it is a common asset that Japan has developed in its relationship with Korea and other victim countries.

Following the announcement of the Kono Statement on the 'comfort women' issue, a debate on how this issue should be resolved had started in Japan. From Mr. Murayama's keynote speech, I learned that the National Diet of Japan at that time had been largely divided into two groups on how to resolve the 'comfort women' issue.

The LDP had claimed that this issue had been already a done deal with the Korea-Japan Agreement of 1965. The JSP had argued that Japan should be responsible for the 'comfort women' issue because it had been a huge violation of human rights. The compromise that both parties had ultimately arrived at had been to let the people raise a compensation fund (Asian Women's Fund) if the government couldn't make the compensation. This idea, however, had been criticized by both the right wing and the left wing within Japan. Furthermore, the civil-society organizations and the government of Korea had also made it clear that they had been against this fund. Mr. Murayama frankly admitted that the Asian Women's Fund, despite the best efforts by those involved in its preparation, had ultimately failed to resolve the 'comfort women' issue. In other words, he admitted that it had been Japan's decisive mistake to have executed the compromise solution reached internally without seeking Korea's understanding. Mr. Murayama and Mr. Haruki said that they had realized through the Asian Women's Fund that the solution desired by the victims mattered most and that nothing could be solved without agreement by the two nations and peoples.

Mr. Murayama's keynote speech was an opportunity to listen to him talk frankly about the background of the birth of the Murayama Statement and his long-held conviction and opinion about the 'comfort women' issue. After his speech, there was a heated discussion and Q&A session by the audience that consisted of leading Korean scholars, journalists, and NGO representatives. What would be the best solution to ROK-Japan relations in such difficulties today? Although the answer was not found, the discussion was a meaningful occasion where the participants struggled to figure out how Korea and Japan should prepare to welcome 2015.