“On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, we must calmly reflect upon the road to war, the path we have taken since it ended, and the era of the 20th century. We must learn from the lessons of history the wisdom for our future.”
So begins Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hotly anticipated statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The official Cabinet statement, delivered on August 14, will be heavily scrutinized, particularly in China and South Korea, for evidence that Abe is attempting to avoid historical responsibility. In particular, outside observers were looking to see that Abe replicated key language from the 1995 Murayama Statement and the 2005 Koizumi Statement: the word “apology” and admissions of Japan’s “aggression” and “colonial rule.” In essence, the question was how Abe would explain what, exactly, Japan did wrong in World War II and the preceding years and how (if at all) he would offer an apology for those actions.
So how did Abe do? Let’s take a look.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
What Did Japan Do?
On the question of what Japan got wrong, Abe provides a litany of missteps — but all are vague. The key words of “aggression” and “colonial rule” are there, but not in the context many in China and Korea hoped.
First, Abe begins by emphasizing Western colonialism, not Japan’s. He even claims that “[t]he Japan-Russia War gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa,” presumably as a symbol that a non-Western country could defeat the European powers. Yet Abe’s formulation ignores the fact that the Japan-Russian War actually took place in China (Manchuria) and Korea — and is perceived by those countries as two rival colonialist powers fighting for dominance over the Chinese and Korean people, not as “encouragement.” In other words, Abe got off to a rough start.
Abe notes, however, that World War I “put the breaks on colonialization” and sparked a “strong desire for peace [all emphasis from the original document]” around the globe. When “Japan’s economy suffered a major blow” during the Great Depression, however, Abe said that the country “attempted to overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force.”
“Japan gradually transformed itself into a challenger to the new international order… Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war,” Abe said.
“…Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering.”
The words “aggression” and “colonial rule” do appear later, in a list of things Japan swears never to do again: “Incident, aggression, war — we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. We shall abandon colonial rule forever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world.”
It’s a clever formula — it allows Abe to use the words with only the most tacit admission that Japan was actually guilty of “aggression” and “colonial rule” in the first place. But as with most compromises, it’s unlikely to leave anyone truly satisified.
Interestingly, Abe does include an oblique reference to the “comfort women” issue, which is new: “We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” But there is no apology or claiming of Japanese responsibility. If this was meant as an olive branch to South Korea, it’s unlikely to be an effective one.
On a side note, Korea was curiously absent from most of the specific references to victim countries. Abe mentions “the Chinese people who underwent all the sufferings of the war” and “former POWs of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia,” in the context of praising these groups for their efforts at tolerance and reconciliation. Korea, however, only appears once in the speech, as part of a laundry list of countries Japan wronged. Seoul, which had already felt left out of historical gestures, will take note.
Did Abe Apologize?
Beyond a clear statement of what Japan did wrong, observers in China and South Korea wanted to see a clear apology. In that, they will not be satisfied. Here’s Murayama’s famous apology, for comparison: “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.”
And here’s what Abe said: “On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” And from later on in the speech: “even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief.”
To a layperson, this sounds very much like an apology, and quite an emotional one at that. But analysts in China and South Korea had specific expectations, which they made quite clear well in advance: they wanted the word apology, which is conspicuously absent. Abe does not even use the word “remorse,” which many had expected him in include.
Well, that’s not entirely true — Abe does include the words “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” (the exact quotes from the Murayama Statement). But rather than offering those sentiments again, Abe is pointing out that Japan has already apologized (and apologized enough, the unspoken sentiment seems to be): “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war.”
Abe promises that these previous apologies will be respected: “Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.” But he also argues 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.”
Before the speech, media reports said Abe would not apologize out of concern that doing so would require the Japanese government to continue to apologize in perpetuity. That sentiment seems to have guided the final version, which may win Abe points domestically but will not play well with China and South Korea.
Thus the headline from Xinhua right after the speech: “Abe’s watered-down apology fails sincerity test.”