How kind of the Japanese government to assuage my worries from last week when I wondered if Northeast Asia’s 2015 would be overshadowed by the 70th anniversary of World War II. As I wrote then, my primary concern was that either the current Japanese administration under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would make inflammatory statements about Japan’s role in the war or, even worse, deign to visit the ever-controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese war criminals are commemorated. In a year-opening press conference on Monday, Abe explicitly reassured reporters that his cabinet would express remorse for Japan’s role in the Second World War.
“The Abe Cabinet will uphold the general stance on history of successive prime ministers, including the Murayama statement,” he said. The Murayama statement was a 1995 apology issued by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama at the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the war and Japan’s surrender. The statement is rather extraordinary in its bluntness, and the fact that it comes straight from Abe is a reassuring signal as we head into 2015. Based on his previous behavior, one wouldn’t have been amiss to assume that either Abe or one of his cabinet members would have donned the troubling Japanese nationalist stance of downplaying Japan’s wartime responsibilities. Just over a year ago, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine, drawing a sharp backlash from China and South Korea.
Abe’s comments at the press conference indicate that his cabinet will prepare a statement on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end that would include “Japan’s remorse for the war.” This in itself could mean a variety of things. Abe did not explicitly state that his cabinet would once again apologize in the same manner as the Murayama statement. “Remorse” could simply mean regret that international conflict occurred. An apology specifically addressing the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army, for example, would send a much stronger signal to neighboring governments in South Korea and China. In fact, part of what Chinese and South Korean observers claim is a shortcoming in the “remorseful” statements of conservative Japanese nationalists is their refusal to outright apologize for Japan’s wartime atrocities. Though the Murayama statement and the Kono statement on “comfort women” are understood to be official apologies, their existence has not helped contemporary international relations in Northeast Asia.
Expecting the Abe administration to issue a heartfelt apology for Japan’s conduct during the Second World War is still a pipe dream, but it’s reassuring to see that Abe will instruct members of his cabinet to behave carefully this year lest they cause more damage to Japan’s relations with its neighbors. Abe, no doubt, will attend several international events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the war’s end. No doubt he will also deliver remarks for an international audience. How he chooses his words then will shed further light on whether his administration is growing more moderate on historical issues.
What’s additionally interesting is that the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender could draw more of a public debate on Japan’s conduct during the war, possibly conditioning the Abe administration’s behavior. The left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, for example, issued an editorial calling on the administration to apologize for Japan’s wartime conduct. “If … Japan starts talking about the future without seriously facing up to its past, countries that suffered from Japan’s wartime behavior could start wondering if the Japanese are saying, ‘Let’s forget the past,'” it wrote. Even if there is a public push for greater remorse on World War II, Abe, who recently won a snap election with a landslide, has received a powerful mandate to rule and will likely be less concerned with public opinion than he may have been in the past.
China, for its part, has left nothing ambiguous in its expectations for the Abe government. As per its standard line, the Chinese foreign ministry noted that it expected nothing short of complete remorse from the Japanese government. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying noted on Monday that China hoped that “Japan can match its words.” She added that China wished to see Japan “[face] up to its history of aggression, (and) abide by all the solemn statements and promises it has made on the issue of history.” China and Russia will hold a celebratory event some time this year to mark their victory against “German fascism and Japanese militarism,” and China and South Korea will similarly hold an event to remember the anniversary of their triumph against Japanese aggression and the liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese colonialism.