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Mixed message on history tough balancing act for Abe

Skipping Yasukuni may appease neighbors, not voicing remorse may placate right, for now

Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent mixed messages Thursday on the 68th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, indicating a desire to mend ties with China and South Korea but also a wish not to be seen by his conservative supporters as making too many concessions.

Abe chose not to visit war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on the Aug. 15 surrender day, a decision expected to somewhat appease Beijing and Seoul, which regard the Shinto shrine to the nation’s war dead as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, as it also enshrines convicted war criminals.

A visit would have fueled tensions at a time when relations with those neighbors are already strained by territorial rows as well as disagreements over history.

With the United States, Japan’s key ally, having expressed hope that Abe will not escalate tensions in the area, he “sent out a signal toward improving relations,” a source close to him said.

But at the same time, unlike prime ministers since 1994, Abe, in his speech to mark the anniversary, omitted any reference to Japan’s awareness of having caused damage to other parts of Asia during the war.

Abe, who was born after World War II, has said he wants to end the country’s “postwar regime,” expressing eagerness to overhaul a framework he says was forced on Japan following its defeat.

His Liberal Democratic Party is likely to accelerate efforts to revise the pacifist Constitution to enhance Japan’s defense capabilities, as the ruling party has taken heart from its recent Diet election wins.

Abe instructed the government to “fundamentally remake” the prime ministerial address at the annual ceremony, making clear he would not mention Japan’s war responsibility, sources familiar with its drafting said.

Japan “will never forget its responsibility for having caused damage” in Asia, an official at the prime minister’s office said, but added that Abe focused instead on expressing his appreciation and respect for those who died in battle to protect the country and for their next of kin.

But the address raised the eyebrows of his coalition partner.

“I don’t understand the prime minister’s true intent,” said a senior lawmaker from New Komeito. “Frankly, I’m worried about whether (Abe) is really trying to improve relations with China and South Korea.”

Abe is also planning to issue a statement in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His government basically agrees with a similar statement on history issued in 1995 on the 50th anniversary by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that apologized for Japan’s wartime aggression and colonial rule in Asia.

But Abe could distance the government somewhat from the Murayama statement when drawing up his own version, making Japan’s war responsibility less clear. Some officials said his address Thursday may help in creating the first draft of the new statement, which will be more future-oriented.

Abe’s decision not to visit Yasukuni on the anniversary was indicative of his attempt to hold a summit particularly with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Tokyo had conveyed his plan to Beijing in advance through various channels not to go to the shrine, sources close to Abe acknowledged.

Japan’s territorial rows with China and South Korea, however, have been another factor that has prevented summits. Analysts say that despite Abe’s decision not to visit Yasukuni on the anniversary, his views on history could remain a source of conflict.

  • Robert Vincent

    Japanese politicians, please quit trying to sweep Unit 731 under the rug.