National / Politics

Abe's WWII statement speaks of regret but dodges details

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday issued a much-awaited statement about World War II in which he spoke of “deep remorse” over Japan’s wartime misdeeds.

“Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its action during the war. . . . Such (a) position articulated by the previous Cabinets will remain unshakable into the future,” Abe said in the official English translation of the statement.

His choice of words was apparently aimed at calming critics because the closely observed text included four phrases used in earlier war apology statements: “heartfelt apology” and “deep remorse,” “colonial rule” and “aggression.”

With his support rate plummeting to below 40 percent for the first time since he returned as prime minister in December 2012, a Jiji Press poll has found, Abe was apparently trying to avoid rattling the administration with further political and diplomatic rows.

“We must never again repeat the devastation of war. Incident, aggression, war — we shall never again resort to any form of threat or use of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” the statement said.

“We shall abandon colonial rule forever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world.”

He also said, “Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering. . . . I myself find speechless and my heart rent with the utmost grief. How much emotional struggle must have existed and what great efforts must have been necessary for the Chinese people who underwent all the sufferings of the war and for the former POWs who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military in order for them to be so tolerant nevertheless?”

With the statement, Abe appeared to be aiming to overturn — or at least dilute — his reputation as a potentially dangerous leader who might challenge the postwar order.

“We will engrave in our hearts the past, when Japan ended up becoming a challenger to the international order,” he said.

A poll in August found Abe’s approval rate fall 0.4 percentage points from the previous month to 39.7 percent, while his disapproval rating rose 1.4 points to 40.9 percent.

During a news conference that coincided with the release of the statement, Abe expressed a wish to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“If there’s a chance, I want to take advantage of it,” he said. “My door is always open for dialogue,” he added.

Abe also indicated his statement was designed to put an end to diplomatic rows over Japan’s war apologies.

“Seventy years have passed after the end of the war. We should not leave our future generations, who have nothing to do with the war, caught up in a situation where you need to keep apologizing,” Abe said at the news conference.

“I thought that’s a duty for us, who are alive now,” Abe said. Until a few days ago, Abe kept people guessing as to whether he would use key phrases in the statement. Nations such as China and South Korea in particular were expected to scrutinize the text to ascertain the diplomatic stance of a leader widely regarded as a revisionist.

Meanwhile, Abe may draw criticism from some of his core nationalist supporters, who had urged him not to bow to repeated demands from Beijing and Seoul for another official apology for Japan’s wartime actions and its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Still, the statement, which was endorsed by the Cabinet earlier in the day, probably matches the sentiments of a majority of Japanese people.

An NHK poll on Aug. 7-9 found that 42 percent of 1,057 respondents wanted Abe to include an apology for Japan’s colonial rule and aggression. Only 15 percent opposed this.

Abe initially indicated he was disinclined to repeat the four phrases voiced by past Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi in statements issued on the 50th and 60th anniversaries respectively. Many right-leaning politicians are reluctant to describe Japan’s advance into China in the 1930s and ’40s as “aggression.”

They maintain there was no clear definition of “aggression” under international law at that time, and that Japan should not be singled out for condemnation since many Western powers had earlier invaded and colonized nations without drawing the same level of criticism. On Jan. 25, weeks after his party won a landslide victory in a Lower House election, Abe told NHK that he did not want to issue a statement that would spark “microscopic debates” over which phrases should and should not be included.

He also maintained that the statement, issued on the eve of Saturday’s anniversary of the end of the war, should be “future-oriented.”

Those remarks were widely seen as meaning Abe was reluctant to repeat the words of Murayama and Koizumi — and it caused a stir both at home and abroad.

In April last year, Abe told a Diet session that what is described as aggression “can be viewed differently” depending on which side the observer is on. Criticism followed, and Abe later said he upholds the Murayama statement “as a whole.”

He also drew strong protest from China and South Korea when he visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013.

But Abe otherwise has maintained a low profile in dealing with the two Asian rivals, and reportedly is trying to arrange a summit with Chinese leaders in Beijing as early as September.

On Aug. 6, an advisory panel to Abe published its report on Japan’s modern history and postwar reconciliation, strongly criticizing its wartime “aggression” against other Asian countries.

Of the 16-member panel, handpicked by Abe, two members raised opposition to use of the term “aggression,” but the panel as a whole endorsed it, according to Shinichi Kitaoka, the panel’s deputy head and president of the International University of Japan.