Thursday, Aug 17, 2017, 9:59 AM CST – China


Abe’s 70th Anniversary Message


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to have bent over backwards during his speech for the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat in order to appease those expecting an outright apology while not actually directly admitting responsibility. It may make more sense for observers to look beyond Abe’s speech, instead of waiting for an apology that may never come

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (front), Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend the memorial service for the war dead of World War II at the Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, August 15, 2015

Members of a cross-partisan lawmakers’ alliance advocating the Yasukuni Shrine visit at the shrine, Tokyo, August 15, 2015 Photo by IC

"The Japanese typically apologize far more frequently than Westerners,” as “apologizing is considered a virtue in Japan,” explained Namiko Abe, a Japanese language expert, in her article “How to say ‘I am sorry’ in Japanese.” Her comments are consistent with observers of Japanese culture and people who have contact with Japanese people in everyday life. However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proven that “sorry” really is the hardest word when it comes to facing the country’s dark wartime history.

On August 14, 2015, the day before the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to the Allies, Abe made a televised speech approved by his cabinet, the third of its kind since the end of World War II. There were four highly anticipated key terms that viewers were looking out for: “colonial rule,” “aggression,” “remorse” and “apology.” Except for “remorse,” Abe had skirted around the other three terms in previous domestic and international addresses, which led many to assume that they would also be missing from this speech.

However, these words were in fact included, but in a way that corresponded with Abe’s view of history. “Colonial rule” and “aggression” referred to actions taken by Western powers or to the use of force in general, rather than to Japan’s behavior specifically during that period of history. “Remorse” and “apology” were expressed by reiterating the attitudes of previous governments, or pledging to not let Japan’s postwar generations “be predestined to apology.” The next day, the prime minister gave an offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including, since 1978, 14 Class A war criminals. According to the shrine’s official website, it is the place to “show appreciation and respect to those who dedicated their precious lives to their mother country.”

Chinese analysts stressed that it is not an apology’s frequency that matters, but its sincerity and the rationale behind it, particularly now, when there is perceived momentum in Japan’s rightist faction and the Abe administration is trying to change the country’s pacifist constitution through amendments that give new powers to its Self-Defense Forces.

China and South Korea were disappointed by Abe’s implicit apologies and repudiation of the nature of the war. They were also dissatisfied with his explicit respect for the Yasukuni Shrine and his statements that future apologies for wartime aggression will not be necessary, as they feel he has yet to make a sincere one. China’s Foreign Ministry criticized Abe for “being evasive” on the nature and accountability of past wars.

67 Japanese lawmakers and three cabinet ministers visited the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, and 44 percent of Japanese voters “approved of” Abe’s speech, according to Japan’s Kyodo News. Reconciliation in East Asia remains uncertain and bumpy 70 years after the end of war.

Clear and Direct

Specifically, the words and tone expected from Japan are epitomized in the 1995 statement by former Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama that marked the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the remarks by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993. Murayama became the first Japanese prime minister to use the word “owabi,” which unambiguously means “apology,” in a cabinet-approved statement about past wars. It was based on the first open recognition of Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” toward the rest of the world. In what became known as “the Kono statement,” a government official admitted publicly for the first time that government research revealed that the Japanese military was involved in the “establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.”

In the postwar years before these two statements, Japan’s Emperor Akihito and former prime ministers had expressed “remorse,” “sorrow” or “regret” over “sufferings” or “damages” inflicted by the war during their visits to other Asia-Pacific countries and meetings with those countries’ leaders.

As Gao Hong, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), explained to NewsChina, it is not enough to say “regret” or “remorse” without clarifying the “why” behind those feelings, given the reluctance some Japanese officials and people have in recognizing the country’s wartime aggression.

Some Japanese governments have followed in the spirit of those two landmark statements in terms of frank recognition of the nature of the war and clear expressions of apology. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, also a nationalist leader, used a similar choice of words in his speech marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

Revisionist Views

Abe frowns upon, if not totally opposes, the statements made by Murayama and Kono. Murayama decided to make a prime ministerial statement as a cabinet decision in 1995 only after his attempts to pass a bill recognizing the act of aggression and to make a no-war pledge were blocked mainly by an alliance of conservative nationalist lawmakers, of which Abe was a member. Abe had joined a history research committee in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1994. On the same day that Murayama made his statement, that committee published and distributed a book to all LDP members that systematically blamed victim countries for causing the war and rebuked Japan’s defeat and the trial of its war criminals.

Right before Abe became head of the LDP in 2006, he said at a forum that China’s policy in the 1970s of encouraging Chinese people to build a friendship with Japanese civilians, distinguishing them from Japan’s wartime military personnel, would be regarded as a “classist view of history” and would not work in Japan, according to Kyodo News. During his first one-year stint as prime minister, Abe refused a 2007 US House of Representatives resolution that demanded an apology from the Japanese government for forcing Asian women, particularly those from South Korea, to become “comfort women.” In 2013, during his second term, he ordered a review of the research on comfort women, which was the impetus behind the Kono statement. In that same year, during the Upper House Budget Committee sessions, he claimed that there was no international or academic definition of “aggression,” and thus it was not necessary to fully embrace the Murayama statement. On March 14, 2014, while promising to “uphold” the positions of the Murayama and Kono statements, he insisted that “the issues of history should not be politicized or be turned into a diplomatic issue.”

His actions and remarks have put him under a lot of domestic and international pressure to include “colonial rule,” “aggression” and “apology” in his speech ever since he announced in 2013 that he intended to speak on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Chinese and South Korean foreign ministry officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of this expression in their relations with Japan. A US Congressional Research Service report released this past April warned that Abe’s and his cabinet’s revisionist views of history could damage East Asia relations in a way that affects US interests, and suggested an alternative place to commemorate Japan’s war dead. Abe and his cabinet were surprised by the report’s contents and criticized it, according to Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

Two days before Abe’s scheduled speech, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said at a briefing that the secretary-general called for Abe to reflect on history. Leaders of the New Komeito Party, the junior partner in Abe’s coalition government, called for Abe to apologize in his speech, along with some other minor parties in the Diet, Japan’s parliament. Hundreds of Japanese academics, many of whom focus on history, politics and law, signed statements in June and July asking Abe to express remorse and apologize unequivocally in his speech.

Abe’s remarks have been closely watched this year on an international level as well. The fact that he avoided defining the war as an “aggression” and bypassed offering an apology at international events, notably the 2015 Asia-Africa Summit in Jakarta and a US congressional meeting in April, as well as during domestic Diet debates, has rarely gone unnoticed by international media.

“Two Steps Back”

Chinese analysts believed that by including these words in his speech in a roundabout way, Abe is trying to accommodate voices of those who both support and oppose his views. As CASS researcher Yang Bojiang noted to State broadcaster CCTV on August 15, the context of these phrases in Abe’s speech deviates from the historical record.

One example highlighted by Chinese analysts is the 1904-05 war in which Russia and Japan fought mainly in China’s northeast for dominance over both northern China and on the Korean peninsula. In Abe’s speech, he described the Russo-Japanese War as a result of Japan’s “sense of crisis” towards “waves of colonial rule [that] surged toward Asia in the 19th century” by the “Western powers,” and the Japanese victory “gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa.” He went on to say that Japan’s involvement in World War II was caused by Japan’s “sense of isolation” due to the “Western countries launching economic blocs [that involved] colonial economies” after the Great Depression in the 1930s. Therefore, he concluded, the lesson from history is that Japan tried to “break its deadlock” by force.

In the only sentence with “aggression,” the word is sandwiched between two other nouns – “Incident, aggression, war” – and is used in a pledge that Japan will never “again” use force in “settling international disputes.” This wording is in line with Japan’s right-wing narrative, that the country’s past actions were all in the name of self-defense and the liberation of Asia from Western powers. Japan’s right and left differ fundamentally in their views on the history of World War II and the postwar pacifist constitution.

Instead of a direct apology from his administration, the apology is made by conveying that “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war.” He also avoided using the term “comfort women” by mentioning instead “women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.”

All of these instances, as Tsinghua University professor Liu Jiangyong told the media, represented “two steps backward” in the understanding of history.

Moving Forward

Chinese analysts noticed some of the speech’s positive points as well. In Liu’s view, the “one step forward” in the speech is the mentioning of the “tolerance” of Chinese people who raised about 3,000 Japanese children left behind in China right after the war, mainly during the evacuation and repatriation of the Japanese army and civilians. This is the first time that a Japanese prime minister has ever talked about this in a public statement.

Although Abe’s apology may be more a result of political pressure and should not be taken to show a change in his perception of history, CASS’s Gao Hong thinks it is still significant in that it is a political statement made to the world by a top political leader and endorsed by his cabinet, thus it can act as a “constraint” to his actions and keep him from reneging on this commitment.

The fact that Abe had to include those key words in his speech “reflects a new situation in the tug-of-war between the rightists and the anti-rightists, making it difficult for Abe to go as far right as he would lean if he were unrestrained,” Liu noted to the media. A book co-edited and co-authored by Liu explained how political, social, economic and cultural factors in Japan have underlined the pro-right momentum that has been gradually growing since the end of World War II, particularly gaining steam after the Cold War. Indeed, several of Abe’s predecessors openly advocated redefining the war as an act of self-defense against Western powers and the protection of Japanese citizens overseas.

More steps forwards can be seen when looking beyond Abe. On August 15, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, whose father surrendered to the Allies exactly 70 years before, expressed his “deep remorse” over the war, using those words for the first time in his remarks during Tokyo’s annual memorial service for the war dead. In another “first,” in his “New Year Thoughts” statement released this past January, he specified that the “Manchurian Incident of 1931” was the start of the war. International media outlets believe these statements show he is most likely trying to express his concern over Japan’s future under Abe’s revisionist view of history. Chinese analysts generally appreciate the efforts of the emperor and his father in upholding Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution. Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the Yasukuni Shrine after the names of Class A war criminals were added to its list of honorees.

According to Kyodo News, in early April a new medical history museum in Fukuoka breaks a seven-decade-old taboo by addressing another dark passage of Japan’s wartime history: vivisection carried out on living US prisoners of war conducted at Kyushu University’s medical school. On August 15, Japanese paper Mainichi Shimbun declared its commitment to “cover news while keeping war lessons in mind” in the face of trends toward “refusing to humbly listen to different opinions in Japan.”

All of these instances may improve the understanding of history in Japan, particularly amongst the younger generation. As both Liu Jiangyong and Gao Hong told NewsChina, many Japanese people, including academics and researchers, do not know major sections of World War II history as this part of history is not illustrated in detail in textbooks nor discussed much in Japan.

Chinese academics are also stepping up their own efforts to conduct research on this topic. The first Chinese book about the International Military Tribunal for the Far East from the perspective of international law will soon be published in China. It includes essays by Chinese, Western and Japanese researchers from China’s 2013 academic seminar about the trials.

Looking forward, Abe promised in his speech that the position of “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” that has been “articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.” He said, “We have the great responsibility to take the lessons of history deep into our hearts... and to make all possible efforts for the peace and prosperity of Asia and the world.” It is hoped that these commitments will be upheld, not revised. 


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