Associate Fellow, Asia Programme
For the moment, the prime minister appears to have successfully avoided stoking domestic and international tensions surrounding Japan’s war record.
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bows during an annual memorial service for war victims in Tokyo on 15 August 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bows during an annual memorial service for war victims in Tokyo on 15 August 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Few statements by the Japanese prime minister in recent years have been so extensively discussed in advance as that by Shinzo Abe on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, on 15 August. The most frequent speculation was that the statement would be brief, and that Abe’s desire to say something different from the formal apology made by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 would lead him into new and potentially controversial territory.

In the event, the statement was lengthy (1,664 words) and covered extensive historical as well as political ground. The speech has been broadly welcomed by Japan’s friends and allies as reaffirming Japan's remorse for its wartime actions in acceptable language; its sincerity has been questioned by Japan’s regional neighbours and former adversaries, as well as those within Japan critical of the prime minister's perceived nationalist agenda. But the worst fears of a radically revisionist statement have not been realized. This appears to be a basis for taking forward the process of improving regional relations.

Reading history

The length and scope of the statement reflect the need for the Prime Minister to address different constituencies – not only Japan’s international partners, but a domestic audience divided between pacifist critics of Abe’s policy of changing the legal basis of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, supporters of Japan’s playing a more active and assertive collective security role, and a smaller but vocal nationalist minority who reject any concept of remorse or apology for Japanese aggression or war crimes.     

The 1995 Murayama statement explicitly apologized for Japan’s actions, acknowledged that Japan’s foreign policy had been wrong, its military forces aggressive and its rule in East Asia colonialist. Subsequent prime ministers, including Abe, have endorsed that statement, although Abe himself has tended to qualify his agreement with the words ‘zentai toshite’ (generally speaking).  This led to a fear that the 2015 statement would dilute Murayama.   

But Abe’s statement makes clear that the position articulated by the previous cabinets, including ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology’, remains ‘unshakeable’. The 2015 statement also refers, for the first time in any such document, to the former prisoners of war ‘who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military’; and observes, albeit in language many will find coy, that ‘we must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured’.

The first part of the statement, however, is taken up with a historical analysis of Japan’s pre-war actions, which acknowledges Japan’s errors, but places them in a historical context that some will argue is intended to excuse Japan’s waging war rather than explain this (for example, with reference to economic pressures and to Japan’s ‘sense of isolation’ − although the statement later explicitly acknowledges the Chinese people ‘who underwent all the sufferings of the war’). There is no reference to the ‘Rape of Nanking’, whose extent (indeed, existence) is questioned by some Japanese revisionists. The declaration treads carefully around history contested by some in Japan, without retreating from the statements of remorse and apology by Japanese political leaders that remain on the record.

Domestic and international reaction

The statement is clearly intended to set a template for the future. Abe is here attempting to establish a basis on which current and future generations should not feel eternally obliged to apologise for their parents’ and grandparents’ actions, while asserting the responsibility of all Japanese ‘to squarely face the history of the past’. In support of this, he makes an extended commitment to Japan’s values today – in support of freedom, democracy and human rights, of women’s rights, of work to reduce poverty and assist development, so as to reduce pressures for extremism, as well as continued commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and to a liberal international economic system. He refers explicitly to ‘pro-active pacifism’, the cornerstone of his attempts to revise Japan’s security and defence policy.

For the US, Japan’s ally, and other security partners, who want to see Japan playing a more active international role along these lines, as well as contributing to an easing of tensions in the region, the statement will be seen as positive, in that it represents a clear invocation of shared values, without – as some had originally feared − a watering-down of Japan’s existing apologies. The governments of the US, Australia and UK have welcomed the statement accordingly.

But an inevitable consequence of the continual arguments over history is that the language used to convey concepts like guilt and responsibility becomes intensely politically charged. Some countries in the region who were victims of Japanese aggression, specifically China and Korea, contribute to this by periodically revisiting issues of contention in the broader context of fluctuating political relationships; some Japanese politicians, likewise, scratch at the sore of history by arguing over the details and questioning the grounds on which Japan has already acknowledged its faults (and thereby contribute to the inaccurate perception in some quarters that Japan has never apologized).

Where history is seen as a competition between rival political views, the aspiration expressed by some that a Japanese political leader should follow the example of Willy Brandt and make formal atonement, as Brandt did in 1970 at the Warsaw Ghetto, becomes illusory: how could any Japanese politician effectively bow the knee to a China that itself sees and uses history as a political weapon?

The immediate impact of Abe’s statement in Japan appears to have been positive. There has been some domestic political criticism, including from Murayama, who described it as ‘meaningless’ and ‘blurred’. But Abe’s popularity ratings, damaged by hostility to his defence and security policies, have slightly improved, reflecting perhaps respect for the values that the statement was intended to invoke. Criticism in China and Korea of Abe’s tilting too far towards nationalist opinion, ‘insincerity’ and ‘euphemisms’ has fallen short of the sort of anger expressed on previous occasions. It is not yet clear whether elite and popular opinion will march to different drums on this point.    

Thus the political, as well as moral, calculus that inevitably lies behind the negotiation of this difficult territory appears to have been successful. The next phase of the restoration of Japan’s relations with its neighbours remains unclear. So far, however much some commentators may have been frustrated by the extent to which the statement reflects the views of those who question as well as those who feel shame for the historical record, there appear to have been no missteps in the 70th anniversary statement that should make that process harder to take forward.

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