What Japan's Abe Should Say About World War II


“History is harsh. What’s done cannot be undone.” In a historic address to a joint session of Congress on April 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said these words. Indeed, Shinzo Abe knows better than anyone else how a harsh history could become a difficult barrier for today’s relationships. After 70 years, the ghost of war unfortunately still haunts people in East Asia.

“On behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II,” Abe said, speaking in English in his speech before Congress. He also visited the National World War II Memorial before arriving on Capitol Hill. The Japanese leader, however, did not personally apologize for Japan’s atrocities toward its Asian neighbors. Since coming to power, in fact, Mr. Abe has never clearly admitted Japan’s colonial rule and invasion of Asia during World War II.

This is the most unique phenomena of the politics of memory in East Asia. It seems much easier for a Japanese leader to offer condolences to the Americans, who defeated Japan during the brutal war, but much more difficult for this leader to say an apology to his Asian neighbors, the countries that Japan invaded and occupied during the war.

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Abe’s congressional speech may satisfy his American hosts; however, his Asian neighbors are still waiting for another important speech of his — the Japanese government’s official statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, a speech the prime minister will deliver on August 15, 2015.  The stakes for this speech have become very high — it has the potential to either open a new chapter for reconciliation with Korea and China, or to inflict serious, long-lasting damage on relations with Japan’s neighbors.

In fact, Abe has been dedicating a great deal of his time to preparing this speech. He even formed a 16-member advisory committee to help him draft it. It is quite unusual for a leader to give so much attention to a speech — so unusual that it is almost unparalleled. For the August 15 speech, it seems everything boils down to one question: to apologize or not to apologize?

If Abe considers Japan’s neighbors as the main audience for this speech, rather than using this speech for domestic consumption or for addressing the concerns of the United States, I have the following three suggestions for the prime minister:

(1)  Attitude is more important than words

It’s been reported that the Abe administration has already consulted many of Japan’s top scholars regarding the contents of the speech. However I would say that paying too much attention to the words of the speech is the wrong idea. For this speech sincerity is the key, as the main audience for the speech is the victims of the war. There is plenty of time for Abe to carefully construct a beautiful oration, but it’s more important for the speech itself to convey the true sincerity of the Japanese and the prime minister himself of his understanding of the war 70 years ago. Simply, the question is whether Abe is genuine in what he says, knowing and understanding the past actions and giving a clear and true apology for Japan’s wartime crimes and reflecting upon them. There are many ways recent Japanese politicians have worked around using the terms “apology” and “aggression” — this is why attitude is paramount in this particular speech.

(2)  Post-war orientation is the wrong track

In a recent press interview, Abe mentioned that his speech will be future oriented, and his top assistants mentioned that the speech is to be focused on presenting Japan’s post-war transformation and Japan’s contributions to international society as a peace loving country. In a normal situation focusing on the future is the correct attitude, but for this speech a focus on the future is the wrong track. Japan and its neighbors have never fully achieved real reconciliation during the 70 years since the end of the war. Without sincere reflection on the past, there won’t be real reconciliation and without reconciliation there is no positive future for the relationships between Japan and its neighbors.

There is no doubt that Japan has made an invaluable contribution to the international community and has already transformed from a war machine to a peace loving country. However, the prime minister should also realize there is a major contradiction between Japan’s self-image and how its neighbors perceive Japan. Where the Japanese consider the wartime wrongdoings as acts conducted by their ancestors and having no connection to the current populous, Japan’s neighbors see this in a completely different light. They view a sincere apology and reflection by the present Japanese government and people as an important precondition for normalization and reconciliation. So shifting the focus of the speech from a reflection on the war to emphasizing Japan’s postwar period contributions may provoke anger from the audience of the speech. There is no point in Abe shining a light on Japan’s post-war accomplishments without first addressing Japan’s victims with an admission of guilt and remorse.

(3)  Commit to a peaceful future

A very important part of Abe’s speech should address people’s doubts about his administration’s vision for the future of Japan as a pacifist nation. The administration’s campaign for constitutional reform has generated many interpretations and concerns in international society. Some Chinese are even interpreting the proposed changes to Article 9 of Japan’s constitution as a revival of militarism. In this speech Abe should use clear language to explain to the international community what kind of country he aspires for Japan to become, especially as regards the commitment to future international peace. People have some doubts about Japan’s future orientation; Abe must make clear to his audience just what kind of nation he wants Japan to be.

History is harsh. And the worst legacy of a harsh history is that today’s people are still the prisoners of the past. Delivering this speech will certainly be a difficult task for Abe — not due to issues in formulating the language or speaking the phrases, but because of the lack of consensus inside Japanese society regarding the nation’s past. The outside world should perhaps subdue its expectations for this speech, but for Prime Minister Abe, after his recent consolidation of power, this may be a good opportunity to write a new chapter in history with Japan’s neighbors and reopen the unfinished reconciliation process.

Zheng Wang is the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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