Japan's Abe to express 'remorse' but not 'retrospection' on World War II

Prime Minister Abe is already parsing the words he will use in August to describe Japan's attitude toward the war, a hot-button issue across Asia. This week he characterized his new position as 'forward-looking.' 

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he intends to express Japan's "remorse" for World War II in a speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War.

Expressions of remorse by a national leader for atrocities committed by his country within living memory should not create a diplomatic sensation. 

Yet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has elicited advice from Beijing to Washington for what is shaping up as another much-anticipated official statement about Japan's behavior in World War II, the rollout of which will not come until the 70th anniversary of the end of that war on Aug. 15.

Sources close to Prime Minister Abe say he will issue a statement of "deep remorse," but one in which "retrospection" will not be the dominant theme. Abe this week characterized his new position as "forward-looking." 

The conservative Abe has made no secret of his hostility toward what he regards as Japan's "masochistic" postwar culture of apology and contrition, and has played into some strong national feelings that Japan should stand taller. 

Abe has also raised fears at home and abroad that he will use the 70th anniversary moment to announce a more robust or even aggressive Japanese posture in the region that would be packaged with a greater gloss over the sins of the wartime past.

Yet Abe appeared this week to reassure Japan's wartime victims, and the wider world, saying he intended to express Japan's "remorse" for the war in a statement that would "uphold" previous apologies. But he stopped short of stating that Japan would again apologize for acts of aggression against its neighbors.

The accepted historical narrative of Japan's conduct on the Asian mainland – from the Nanking Massacre to the treatment of Allied POWs – in the first half of the 20th century was the catalyst for a 1995 apology by Japan's then prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, to mark the 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat by the allied powers.

"Through its colonial rule and aggression, [Japan] caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations," Prime Minister Murayama said at the time. "I express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology."

Yet since then, Japan has opened itself up to criticism by China and South Korea that such apologies are hollow or insincere. Visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine where those deemed war criminals are memorialized, have added to strains.

Indeed, Abe's well known determination to use the 70th anniversary as a vehicle for a "forward-looking" declaration has alarm bells ringing in Beijing, Seoul, and Washington. Japan's current territorial disputes with China and South Korea have been complicated by rows over their shared wartime legacy, specifically claims that under Abe, Japan is attempting to whitewash its past, and carve out a more adventurous future for its military.

They point to his equivocation over the wartime coercion of tens of thousands of Asian women to serve as sex slaves in frontline brothels, along with moves to lift the postwar ban on Japanese troops fighting alongside allies overseas. Abe's efforts to rewrite the pacifist Constitution that has kept would-be militarists in Tokyo in check has also raised concern.

Hence the US hope, voiced this week, that Japan will work through historical issues with China and South Korea "in an amicable way through dialogue," and heed China's entreaty to "honestly face up to its history of aggression."

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said anyone familiar with Abe's revisionist views knows that he "can't possibly" agree with the 1995 statement, which also calls for the elimination of "self-righteous" nationalism.

"This is because the Murayama statement is not merely an acknowledgement of past wrongs, but also an expression of continuous commitment to learn from history and reflect its lessons in the conduct of national policies in the present and in the future," Prof. Nakano says.

"In fact, if it was all about upholding the Murayama statement, why would he need a new one?"

Many would agree that the region's interests would be best served by a simple reiteration of Murayama's words.

A source at the prime minister's office said Abe had recognized the need for "deep remorse and contemplation of the past," and that his government "should continue to 'inherit' the views and positions articulated thus far by preceding administrations."

But the source, who did not wish to be identified, added that Abe and his aides had decided that "retrospection should not be the dominant content of the statement."

Over the weekend, Abe said his vision would include mention of the "how Japan can contribute to the Asia-Pacific region and the world."

After Aug. 15, he won't have to wait long to learn whether Japan's watchful neighbors share that vision.

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