Relief, surprise and ambiguity in Abe’s war apology

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s much-anticipated statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War provoked relief, surprise and some ambiguity for the future. It was a relief because there had been some reports that Abe would go through with a cabinet decision to pull away from the position of the 1995 Murayama Statement, which was a clear apology to victims of Japan’s wartime aggression. That did not happen.

The fundamentals of Abe’s statement were that ‘Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war’ and that such a ‘position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future’. The second sentence is powerful and unambiguous. With this we can be assured that the Murayama Statement remains the basis of Japan’s future direction. The key word of ‘owabi (apology) was reconfirmed.

But there have also been surprises. Abe explained the content of Japan’s past history. Where Murayama left this vague and intuitive, Abe gave it concrete expression.

On the sufferings of the people in Asia that merit ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology’, Abe enumerated China, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia among others. No name of any country is mentioned in the Murayama Statement.

On actions taken by Japan in the past, starting with the Manchurian Incident, Abe described how ‘Japan gradually transformed itself into a challenger to the new international order that the international community sought to establish after tremendous sacrifices’. Abe’s statement gives content to Murayama’s abstract description of ‘having made mistaken policy’. This is an audacious definition of Japan’s past history. There are quite a few Japanese who view the war against the United States, Britain and Netherlands as a war among equal imperial powers.

Abe made several references to prisoners of war who went through ‘unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military’. In that context, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia appear as countries victimised by Japan’s past deeds. By contrast, the Murayama statement again does not refer to that aspect of the war.

Abe also introduced an eloquent passage on Japan’s ‘heartfelt gratitude’ to those countries that showed tolerance and forgave Japan’s past wrongdoings. This includes not only the US, UK, Netherlands and Australia, but also China. This gratitude was not expressed in the Murayama Statement.

Finally, the last four paragraphs of Abe’s statement provide a description of Japan’s past wrongdoings and post-war values. It deduces that the positive values that Japan has pursued over the last 70 years are the result of reflection upon its past wrongdoings. These new values include: ‘resolving disputes peacefully’, to be ‘at the side of such women’s injured hearts’, to ‘develop a free, fair, and open international economic system’, and ‘upholding basic values such as freedom, democracy and human rights’.

But Abe’s statement was ambiguous on two points.

First, in upholding past government policies two key words — ‘aggression’ and ‘colonial rule’ — were expected to appear and they did. But is the manner in which they appeared satisfactory from the point of view of those who suffered? As for ‘aggression’, it is used as a part of a statement on ‘incident, aggression, war’, expressing Japan’s determination that ‘we shall never again resort…the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes’.

While it is clear that ‘incident’ means the Manchurian Incident, ‘aggression’ means aggression to China, and ‘war’ means the war against the United States, this is not specified. Why could Abe not say ‘aggression against China’? But, then, is this phrasing something less than the Murayama statement, which also did not specify China?

As for colonial rule, Abe stated that ‘we shall abandon colonial rule forever’. The usage of ‘we’ here (the Japanese original text does not have subjects) gives the impression that this is a general statement, not a specific reference to Japan’s colonial rule on the Korean peninsula. But Abe did say that ‘with deep repentance for the war, Japan made that pledge’ of abandoning colonial rule, which seems to be a direct reference to the Korean peninsula. Again, was Abe less forthcoming than Murayama who did not specify the Korean peninsula either?

Second, the statement contained an important passage about Japan’s future responsibility and remembrance. Abe states: ‘We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise. Still even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future’.

The exact meaning of this paragraph needs parsing. Since Abe confirmed so powerfully that the Murayama Statement will remain unshakable into the future, this paragraph seems to indicate that the ‘position of apology’ should be offered and maintained by all future generations. Younger generations are not in a position to forget. To the contrary, remembrance is the key. This is exactly what Abe said in the second part of this paragraph.

This seems to be Abe’s main point made when he states that younger generations should not to be expected to apologise. This statement implies that Abe is resolved to taking concrete actions so that future generations would not need to express an apology on every political occasion. Yet if any interpretation by nationalist opinion leaders or newspapers emerges contrary to this interpretation it has the potential to destroy the foundation Abe’s statement entirely.

Kazuhiko Togo is the director of the Institute of World Affairs and professor of international politics, Kyoto Sangyo University. He was formerly the ambassador of Japan to the Netherlands.