In a move to maintain consistency in Japan’s official interpretation of wartime history rather than sticking to his personal views, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe retained all key phrases used in a 1995 landmark apology in a statement he issued Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Some analysts speculate Abe may have opted to avert controversy over the choice of specific words, a development that could hamper his efforts to highlight Japan’s postwar path as a peace-loving nation and his pledge to proactively contribute to global peace and prosperity — the main message Abe wants to convey in his “future-oriented” statement.
Others argue a sharp fall in public support rates for the Abe Cabinet, due to unpopular national security bills currently undergoing deliberations by the Diet, may have prompted Abe to be cautious about employing an aggressive diplomatic stance that could spark a backlash at home and abroad, especially in China and South Korea.
In a series of addresses Abe made earlier this year, he expressed “deep remorse” over World War II, but did not refer to a “heartfelt apology” to people in other Asian nations for suffering caused by Japan’s “aggression” and “colonial rule” — three other key phrases spelled out in the 1995 statement issued by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi repeated all these phrases in a 60th anniversary statement he issued in 2005.
And Abe’s controversial remarks and stated desire to restore a sense of pride in Japan and issue a “future-oriented” statement in his own words had raised concern that he might water down the two predecessors’ statements.
In April 2013, Abe angered Beijing and Seoul by saying his Cabinet “does not mean to inherit (the 1995 statement) entirely.” Abe also said the word “aggression” has no established definition in academic circles or internationally, fueling suspicion that he may seek to play down Japan’s wartime acts.
Such remarks, together with Abe’s visit to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, prompted some scholars in Japan and abroad to call him a “historical revisionist.”
Facing criticism, Abe stopped speaking his views on aggression in public and said he upholds the 1995 statement “in its entirety.” When asked during a recent Diet session if he thought Japan committed aggression, the prime minister said, “The judgment about history should be left to historians.”
Abe’s pilgrimage to Yasukuni, the first by a prime minister in seven years, even “disappointed” the United States, which is sensitive to Abe’s actions on historical issues that could provoke Japan’s neighbors, especially South Korea, another key U.S. ally in Asia.
China and South Korea regard the Tokyo shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism as it honors convicted Japanese war criminals, along with about 2.5 million war dead.
While it was not certain whether Abe would specifically mention all the key phrases, a panel commissioned by Abe to advise him on drafting his statement released a report Aug. 6, setting the stage for the prime minister to use “aggression” and “colonial rule.”
In the closely watched report, the 16-member panel concluded “Japan expanded its aggression against the (Chinese) continent” after the Mukden Incident, or Manchurian Incident, in 1931 and that “colonial rule (in Korea and Taiwan) became particularly harsh from the second half of the 1930s on.”
In Friday’s statement, Abe referred to aggression, but only as a general criticism that did not single out Japan’s invasion of China. This may have reflected dissenting views by two panel members who argued there was a sense of reluctance to single out Japan when other countries engaged in similar acts.
The report did not touch on the need for Abe to offer an apology in his statement. But he repeated “heartfelt apology” by quoting the 1995 statement apparently due to a last-minute push by Komeito, the coalition partner of his Liberal Democratic Party, to clearly uphold his predecessors’ apologies.
Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi told reporters Tuesday he requested that Abe issue “a statement that would contribute to improved relations with China and South Korea.”
The Abe statement could not have won approval by a Cabinet that includes transport minister Akihiro Ota, a senior Komeito lawmaker. This may have provided the prime minister with a convenient excuse to give his supporters that he had no choice but to coordinate with Komeito. Many of those supporters are averse to Japan having to continually give apologies.
Despite such efforts, South Korea’s ruling Saenuri Party said Friday it regarded Abe’s reference to “heartfelt apology” as insufficient because he “did not directly mention remorse and apology for Japan’s past history of aggression, but only expressed them in a roundabout way in the past tense.”
Amid such criticism, some experts hailed Abe for maintaining Japan’s official position on wartime history in the new statement, even though he and his supporters might not agree entirely with the underlying historical interpretation.
“China and Korea will probably be able to live with this” as Abe upheld the 1995 and 2005 statements as “unshakable,” said Sven Saaler, an associate professor of modern Japanese history at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“The statement is more than can be expected at this stage, given the current political situation (in Japan),” Saaler said. “But it has the potential to serve as the basis for deeper reconciliation in East Asia in the future,” he added.
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