Tokyo Report

Abe Focuses on Japan’s ‘Lessons Learned’

Recent Features

Tokyo Report

Abe Focuses on Japan’s ‘Lessons Learned’

Some might focus on what the Japanese PM did not say; but what he did say was interesting … and important.

Abe Focuses on Japan’s ‘Lessons Learned’
Credit: U.S. Embassy Tokyo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has presented his statement on the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II (WWII). Much anticipated and debated, this Abe Statement included the language of statements made on the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries by former prime ministers Murayama Tomiichi and Koizumi Junichiro. But Abe took a different tack from his predecessors, identifying the lessons of that war and defeat, and articulating their link to Japan’s current and future ambitions.

Words matter. Four words in particular were seen as evidence of Abe’s attitude toward the past: “aggression (shinryaku),” “colonial domination (shokuminchi shihai),” “deep remorse (tsusetsu na hansei),” and “apology (owabi)”—Abe included all four phrases from the Murayama and Koizumi statements defined as markers of Abe’s intent. For those who saw the semantics as the key to success, Abe left little room for criticism. Yet opposition leaders in the Diet still found room for complaint, arguing that Abe simply quoted past statements rather than repeating them with conviction.

Abe spent some time situating his comments in the larger flow of twentieth century global currents. He opened with the broad sweep of transformation that confronted Japan in the twentieth century, beginning with the “sense of crisis” over Western imperialism that drove Japanese modernization. Noting that the international community sought to outlaw war after World War I, Abe argued that Japan’s mistake was that it became “a challenger” to the “new international order.” Japan’s economic setbacks and its “sense of isolation” separated it from other nations, implying that cooperation rather than confrontation might have produced a different outcome. Critical to his assessment of that fatal choice, Abe pointed out that Japan’s “domestic political system could not serve as a brake to stop” his country’s effort to overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force. Yet he stopped short of identifying who made those choices.

The Abe Statement addressed frankly the tremendous civilian suffering inflicted by Japan’s pursuit of war. From the devastation in Japan to the battlefields of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands, he spoke of the innocent citizens who fell victim to war and his ‘profound grief’ at the devastating costs to all involved. Twice in the statement, Abe spoke to the particular suffering of women during this conflict: “We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” There was no direct reference, however, to the unresolved diplomatic issue between Seoul and Tokyo of how to reach out to those who lived through that experience.

Abe vowed never again to repeat the past, and to link the lessons learned to Japan’s current foreign policy commitments. First and foremost, he identified Japan’s commitment to never again use threat of or use of force to settle international disputes, reiterating the language of Article Nine of the postwar constitution. Second, noting that the Japanese people have “engraved in [their] hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbors,” Abe restated Japan’s devotion to peace and prosperity of the region.

But Abe also spoke of the postwar tolerance demonstrated by those who suffered at the hands of Imperial Japan’s policies. He spoke specifically of the tolerance of the Chinese people and of the former Prisoners of War (POWs), expressing Japan’s “heartfelt gratitude to all those who accomplished the reconciliation that allowed Japan to return to the international community.” He reminded his fellow citizens that because of this spirit of postwar reconciliation six million Japanese returned from battlefields across Asia to rebuild their nation, that three thousand Japanese children abandoned in the chaos after Japan’s defeat in China grew up to visit Japan again, and that former POWs from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands personally led the reconciliation effort, reaching out to those Japanese who had fought against them.

Perhaps the most notable difference from past prime ministerial speeches, however, was his focus on the generations of Japanese who had no experience of war. Noting that eighty percent of today’s Japanese have no direct experience with WWII, he spoke of his generation’s inheritance of a postwar peace and its obligation to “face history squarely.” But he also argued that the children and grandchildren of today’s Japanese should not be “predestined to apologize.” It was time, he implied, to leave that legacy behind.

While it is too early to know what Japan’s neighbors will make of the Abe Statement, Abe clearly had his eye on Japan’s diplomacy. But no less important will be the reaction at home. Asked what his message to the Japanese people was, Abe answered that he sought to make a statement of Japan’s past and future that would be shared broadly among the people of Japan, as well as reassure those outside of Japan of his country’s continued commitment to peace. Only time will tell if Abe will succeed in bridging the longstanding differences that have to date separated the right and the left in Japan’s domestic politics.

Two minor details should not be overlooked. The first relates to Abe’s own sense of his legacy. For all of the references to his grandfather’s influence on his life, it was interesting that Abe chose to visit on the eve of his statement on history the grave of his father, Abe Shintaro. Speaking to the press afterwards, Abe expressed his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps to ensure the postwar peace and prosperity. Second, at the end of his remarks, Abe referenced the scholars and experts who had provided him with recommendations on how to consider Japan’s twentieth century history. He spoke of them as one “voice on history,” but he also implied there were other voices to be heard.

To be sure, the Abe Statement will be scrutinized – and undoubtedly criticized – in the days to come for what he did not say. Before that conversation unfolds, it would be wise to identify what he did say. First, Abe reinforced his country’s commitment to regional reconciliation and the principles of peace outlined in Article Nine of the postwar constitution. Second, he spoke of the “quiet pride” of those postwar Japanese who rebuilt their country, and outlined their continued desire for shared peace and prosperity with their Asian neighbors. Finally, he has also done what no previous prime minister has done—acknowledged with gratitude the tolerance of the very people Japan harmed most deeply in last century’s war, and credited them with his nation’s postwar recovery.

Sheila A. Smith is Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of and Forbes Asia.