In 1995, Japan’s then-prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, used the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II to issue what has come to be regarded as an official apology for Japan’s wartime atrocities. “In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology,” Murayama said.
Ten years later, on the 60th anniversary, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi affirmed that apology. “Sincerely facing these facts of history, I once again express my feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” he said.
And so on Friday, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, it was current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s turn to reckon with the mass rape of Chinese women at Nanking by Japanese soldiers, the military’s use of Chinese and Korean sex slaves known as “comfort women,” and the brutal treatment of American and other allied POWs. “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad,” Abe said. “I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.”
While expressing grief for the lives lost, lamenting the treatment of women by Japanese troops, and renouncing war as a method of resolving international disputes, Abe’s speech pointedly did not contain an apology.
His address contained another striking omission. No Japanese prime minister has ever used an anniversary of the war’s end to explicitly apologize to — or even speak the names of — South Korea and China. But Abe’s predecessors both spoke of Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” during the conflict, a phrase seen as a reference to its behavior in the two countries. Abe pointedly avoided repeating those words.
As the history of statements by Japanese prime ministers shows, the anniversary of the war’s end has become a moment of ritual prostration for the country’s leaders. It’s a history Abe tried to move past on Friday, saying that “we must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”
In the same breath, however, Abe spoke eloquently about the need for Japan to be cognizant of its past, and its role in sparking a conflict that saw large parts of Asia engulfed in war. “Even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past,” Abe said. “We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.”
Five times Abe repeated a variation of the phrase “we will engrave in our hearts the past,” followed by a reference to Japanese behavior during World War II: “the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbours,” “when Japan attempted to break its deadlock with force,” “when the dignity and honour of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century,” “when forming economic blocs made the seeds of conflict thrive,” and “when Japan ended up becoming a challenger to the international order.”
This history, Abe argued, serves as the basis for Japan’s pursuit of an open, free economic order, the renunciation of war, and support for women’s rights.
But in many parts of Asia, Abe’s comments are likely to be viewed as an insufficient reckoning with Japan’s wartime crimes. In China and Korea, the enslavement of millions of women to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s military still resonates as an open political wound. Fueled by a sense that Japan has been unwilling to completely reckon with its wartime crimes, anniversaries such as Friday’s serve as litmus tests for how Japan’s current leadership chooses to address the country’s fraught history. Tellingly, South Korea’s main news agency headlined its coverage of the Japanese leader’s speech with, “Abe skips his own apology for Japan’s wartime past.”
Abe’s statement comes as he is trying to reinterpret Japan’s American-written pacifist constitution to allow the country to take a more active role overseas by being able to come to the military aid of its allies. This move is deeply controversial in Japan, but has been welcomed in Washington, which wants Japan and other allies to help counter China’s growing regional ambitions. As China invests more heavily in its navy and air force, two key tools to project power in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the broader Pacific, Washington wants Japan to ensure that the United States doesn’t shoulder the burden of policing the seas alone — and can come to the United States’ aid in a possible military confrontation with China.
“We welcome Prime Minister Abe’s expression of deep remorse for the suffering caused by Japan during the World War II era, as well as his commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history,” White House spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “We also value Prime Minister Abe’s assurances of Japan’s intent to expand upon its contributions to international peace and prosperity in the years ahead.”
These are steps that for a country without a recent history of regional imperialism — and, some argue, genocide — wouldn’t be particularly controversial. But in East Asia, where the memory of Japan’s behavior during World War II still rings fresh, it is anything but.
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