After months of calculation and consultation, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday unveiled the much-anticipated text of his remarks on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, expressing "profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences" for all those who perished in the conflict and vowing that his country would use diplomatic and peaceful means -- not force -- to solve international conflicts.
Abe affirmed apologies by previous administrations, noting that his predecessors had "repeatedly expressed ... feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology" and that such positions "will remain unshakable into the future." And in a seeming nod to the comfort women issue, he acknowledged that Japan had hurt the dignity of women during wartime.
At the same time, he signaled his belief that the Japanese should not be expected to express remorse indefinitely and implied that Western imperialism had played a role in drawing Japan into the conflict.
"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," the official English translation said. "Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future."
How Abe would characterize Japan’s wartime behavior has been the subject of intense concern and media coverage across Asia and particularly in South Korea and China, where officials have voiced anger at the prime minister’s visits to a controversial war memorial and his administration’s efforts to alter how textbooks present Japan’s wartime history, among other issues. Neither Seoul nor Beijing commented directly immediately after the text was issued.
But in a commentary carried prominently by China's state-run Xinhua News Agency, writer Tian Dongdong said that "the apology was a diluted one at best, thus marking only a crippled start to build trust among its neighbors."
"Instead of offering an unambiguous apology, Abe's statement is rife with rhetorical twists,” the commentary said. "By adding that it is unnecessary for Japan's future generations to keep apologizing, Abe seemed to say that his once-for-all apology can close the page of history."
Abe’s push to reinterpret Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution to allow Japanese forces to fight abroad to defend allies such as the United States has added fuel to the fire. Abe says Japan has demonstrated for seven decades that it has learned from its wartime mistakes, and that modern threats including terrorism and natural disasters demand a new approach.
Observers were closely monitoring the speech to see whether Abe would use the words "colonial rule," "aggression," and "apology" as then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama did in his 1995 statement on the 50th anniversary. He included all three words.
China and South Korea -- along with some prominent left-leaning politicians in Japan -- had urged Abe to align his comments with remarks issued by previous Japanese prime ministers. Ahead of the text’s release, China warned that “any departure will be read as a signal of major alteration in Japan's foreign policy.”
The historical issue has cast a frost over relations among the three East Asian giants. Abe, who came to power in late 2012, has yet to hold a summit with either Chinese leader Xi Jinping or South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Shogo Suzuki, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, said Abe's remarks indicated that whatever Abe's personal feelings about the war era may be, "common sense" had prevailed. The text, he said, "reflected a recognition that "historical revisionism simply does not have any international traction and that any historical revisionism is going to needlessly harm Japan's international image, and is pointless."
But Koichi Nakano, a professor of Japanese politics at Sophia University in Tokyo, said although Abe reaffirmed previous apologies, his mention of Western colonialism and his remarks that future Japanese shouldn't have to apologize "don't help get a message of sincere reflection across [and] may be detrimental to foreign relations."
"It's a lengthy, tortured and conflicting statement that only makes clear at the end of the day that Abe is an historical revisionist at heart who is incapable to offer a straight apology based on a simple recognition of facts," he said.
Abe appointed a special advisory council, the Commission on a Framework for the 21st Century, to advise him on the content of the statement. According to government sources, he had considered a much less apologetic statement but in light of his flagging domestic approval ratings -- which have as sunk as low as 32% -- he seemed loath to court more controversy.
Last week, the commission -- made up largely of conservative voices -- surprised outsiders by suggesting in their report that Abe should acknowledge that after Japanese troops seized the Manchurian city of Mukden in 1931 -- setting the stage for Tokyo’s occupation of northeastern China -- Japan had “expanded aggression into the continent ... [and] engaged in reckless war which inflicted damage on many countries centering on Asia.” The council also acknowledged the brutality of Japan’s colonial rule starting in the latter half of the 1930s.
But the panel had been divided on whether Abe should express an “apology” and, if so, what word to choose to convey his message. Some of Abe’s staunchest supporters believe that Japan has apologized sufficiently and say the country is suffering from “apology fatigue.”
Abe himself has largely avoided discussing Japanese war crimes, saying Japan needs a forward-looking orientation. He also has stressed the need for deepening the U.S.-Japanese military alliance.
Abe is known as a staunch nationalist. Some observers say his worldview has been strongly shaped by his family history; Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was initially arrested by occupying U.S. forces as a suspected war criminal. He was never tried, and later made a political comeback as a staunch anti-Communist, serving as prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960.
In 1995, Murayama issued what many analysts now refer to as “the gold standard” of remarks on Japan’s role in the war.
Murayama used the key word “remorseful” when referring to the actions of Japan during the war, and expressed “heartfelt apology” to all those Japan injured during the war.
He also commented on what direction Japan should now take, saying that the peace and democracy that Japan experienced in the postwar era must be used to repair relations with nearby Asian countries while also creating strong trading partners. He warned that Japan should not return to its warlike ways, adding that his countrymen must “eliminate self-righteous nationalism, promote international coordination as a responsible member of the international community and thereby advance the principles of peace and democracy.
Japan has succeeded in establishing strong economic links with neighbors, including China. But political relations have proved subject to vast swings. In addition to the issue of textbooks, Japan has sparred with China and South Korea over who controls a number of small islets in the region.
Murayama is hardly the only Japanese politician to have issued an apology for Japan’s wartime behavior. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued a similar statement that expressed remorse and apology, albeit with slight differences.
A few weeks ago, Murayama held a news conference in which he urged Abe not to veer from his remarks of 20 years ago. “We should apologize for the errors we made, and vow never to repeat them,” he said.
Nancy Snow, an emeritus professor at Cal State Fullerton whose research focuses on Japanese politics, said that regardless of Abe's words, many critics perceive a gap between his rhetoric and his actions.
"Words are fine, but what of the feeling behind them?" she said. "Watch what he does, not always what he says. ... He’s calling for future generations to be free of apology burdens. Well then, time to update the textbooks, not cleanse them of any wrongdoing. The world can move on when Japan fully accounts for its actions in documents of record."
Adelstein is a special correspondent and reported from Tokyo; Makinen reported from Beijing.
Reina Ino and Louis Krauss in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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