The world marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year, and at home Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is crafting a statement on the Japanese government’s views on the war to be issued on Aug. 15, the day when Emperor Hirohito announced the nation’s unconditional surrender in 1945.
The world’s attention will be pinned on how Japan chooses to remember its wartime misdeeds. Experts pointed out that the content of Abe’s statement could have a critical impact on Japan’s diplomacy and reputation.
Even if Abe issues an unprovocative, politically correct statement, the government will still have a tough time handling diplomacy as it drafts the statement, experts say.
“Leading (Japanese) politicians will certainly make various remarks, expressing their views on what should be described in the statement,” said Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University and a noted Korea expert.
The list of provocative remarks made by politicians who have attempted to justify the war Japan waged on Asia and its colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula is indeed long.
Most recently, the Abe administration gave the impression it was going to alter the 1993 apology issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono over the “ianfu” or “comfort women,” after it launched a review panel last year to scrutinize the way the apology statement was drafted. The bilateral process was reportedly supposed to be kept secret.
The 1993 Kono Statement was Japan’s first formal acknowledgment of the military’s involvement in setting up wartime brothels and its coercion of “a great number” of females to provide sex to Imperial Japanese troops “against their will.”
Despite hinting that he might replace the 1993 apology, and allowing the review panel to announce its findings in what was widely viewed as an attempt to undermine the statement, Abe has pledged to uphold the Kono statement, and the panel did not dispute the studies that were used to draft it.
Abe himself is often portrayed as a nationalist overseas, especially in South Korea and China. His visit to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 angered both neighbors and sent relations into a tailspin.
Officially, he has pledged to prioritize his economic agenda and prefers to leave historical matters in the hands of historians. The Aug. 15 statement should be “future-oriented,” he said.
But many experts agree that, deep down, Abe is a history revisionist who wants to play down Japan’s responsibility for the comfort women ordeal and nurture nationalism and conservatism at home.
Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow and director for foreign and security policy research at the Tokyo Foundation think tank, said China and South Korea are certain to react negatively if Abe’s statement contains a strong tone hinting at historical revisionism.
“It will be crucial whether the text in the statement reflects on the past, remorse for the past, since the future-oriented spirit itself will pose no problem,” Watanabe said.
The Aug. 15 statement will be as closely scrutinized as the one issued in 1995 by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to mark the 50th anniversary of the war, and the one issued in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to mark the 60th anniversary.
Murayama’s statement was particularly epoch-making, as the then-head of the Social Democratic Party straightforwardly admitted Japan bore responsibility for wartime atrocities and for its takeover of the Korean Peninsula. It was considered an unambiguous, formal apology.
However, many right-leaning conservatives in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party have slammed the Murayama apology and pressed Abe to effectively retract it by issuing a new statement this Aug. 15.
Watanabe of the Tokyo Foundation suggested that it would be wise for Abe to consult outside experts, especially those familiar with China and South Korea, when crafting his statement, noting that efforts to improve ties with both will lay the groundwork for issuing it.
“The Japanese side should be aware that (the statement) is being watched” by many other countries, Watanabe warned.
“If the statement contains a self-righteous tone attempting to rewrite the past, it would provide a perfect excuse for an anti-Japan propaganda campaign,” he said.
Before then, Abe will have a difficult time handling history-linked issues.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly invited Abe to attend the 70th anniversary ceremony in May to celebrate the Soviet Union’s World War II defeat of Nazi Germany.
Russia has reportedly invited North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping as well.
If Abe goes, he probably would find it uncomfortable — if not humiliating — to be flanked by the leaders of two countries that prevailed over the Axis Powers — Germany, Italy and Japan — and the president of a former colonial territory.
Abe is trying to build a close relationship with Putin to win concessions from Moscow over the territorial dispute over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that were seized by Soviet forces in the closing days of World War II.
But Abe’s strategy may backfire, since Japan joined the United States and European countries in imposing economic sanctions over Russia’s annexation of part of Ukraine.
By agreeing to impose sanctions, Japan, as a key ally of the United States, has apparently prompted Putin to keep his distance from Abe.