The jitters over what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would say in his statement this summer to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of Japan’s last war illustrate how the way the nation should come to terms with its history of aggression and colonial rule of its Asian neighbors remains an issue seven decades on. Abe’s reported plan to lay the emphasis on the future in the Aug. 15 statement should not be an attempt to water-down Japan’s responsibility for its past behaviors. He needs to weigh the potential diplomatic repercussions of his planned statement, in particularly on Japan’s strained ties with China and South Korea.
Speaking Monday after the annual new-year pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, Abe said he would like the statement to “show to the world Japan’s clear intent to make further international contribution” under his administration’s pursuit of “proactive pacifism.” Abe also said the administration adhere to the past Cabinets’ position on the perception of wartime history, including the 1995 statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that marked half a century after the war. The new statement, he said, would discuss Japan’s “remorse for the past war, its postwar development as a pacifist nation, and how it can contribute to the Asia-Pacific region and the world.”
Abe’s reference to the Murayama statement brings to mind the doubts that he once expressed over the 1995 text in which the Socialist prime minister expressed “deep remorse and a heartfelt apology” for Japan’s “aggression and colonial rule” of Asian countries. In 2013 Abe told the Diet his administration “does not inherit the Murayama statement as it is” and said the definition of “aggression” has not been established “in either academic or international terms.”
After facing criticism from China and South Korea — and reportedly incurring concern from the United States over further strains in international relations in Northeast Asia — Abe later indicated that his Cabinet toes the basic line of the Murayama statement and that he never intended to deny that Japan had waged a war of aggression. Still, his other remarks — such as that the leader of government should not pass judgment on perception of history and instead leave the matter to historians and experts — signal that he does not wholeheartedly endorse the 1995 statement.
Abe says he is no different from past prime ministers in the recognition that Japan “caused enormous damage and pain” to many countries, in particular Asian nations. Since returning to the government’s helm, however, Abe omitted references to repentance over the damage done to the Asian neighbors expressed by his predecessors in his speech at Aug. 15 government ceremonies to mourn for Japan’s war dead last year and in 2013.
For decades now, Japan has advocated “future-oriented” relations with China and South Korea — which in turn shows that the ties with the neighbors that it once invaded or colonized remain pegged to the past. As bilateral ties soured in recent years over the dispute concerning the Senkaku Islands, China has intensified its campaign to rally popular support for the Communist Party leadership as the force that fought the invading Japanese military during the war. The Abe administration’s moves to review the Japanese government’s past statement on the wartime “comfort women” issue also get rebuked in South Korea as history revisionism.
Abe’s first summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November was only the initial step in efforts to repair ties, while he has yet to hold a one-on-one meeting with South Korean leader Park Geun-hye. Beijing and Seoul do not hesitate to take a joint stance against Japan on wartime history issues, and in fact the situation could be said to be drawing them closer together. A step back from the Murayama statement’s position on Japan’s war responsibility is certain to fuel criticism and further damage Japan’s ties with the two countries. The prime minister, who reportedly plans to set up an expert panel to discuss the thrust of his August statement, should carefully consider the impact of his war anniversary message.