OSAKA – Critics of Shinzo Abe have to concede that he used the right buzzwords in his address marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. He talked of Japan’s “shinryaku” (aggression), “shokuminchi shihai” (colonial rule), “tsusetsu na hansei” (deep remorse), and finally used the magic word “owabi” (apology).
But did he really mean the words? The next day queues of people lined up to pay their respects to the war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of convicted and hanged war criminals are enshrined with 2.466 million others who died in wars for Japan from the Meiji Era.
A fancy dress parade of people in Imperial Army uniforms marched to the outer shrine proclaiming Japan’s war glories and asserting that the country had done no wrong. Three members of Abe’s Cabinet, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s influential policy chief Tomomi Inada and 67 Diet members went inside the shrine to pray. Abe himself did not visit, but sent a ritual cash offering with a close aide, who visited on his behalf, which surely renders Abe open to a charge of hypocrisy. The clear message was that Abe was there in spirit, although he did not want to provoke another open row with China and South Korea by turning up in person.
There was an instructive contrast between Abe’s address and Emperor Akihito’s brief speech at the national memorial on Saturday, the actual day of the surrender. The Emperor, stooped with age, bowed his head and spoke of his “deep remorse” for the war, expressing hope that “the ravages of war will never be repeated.” He continued, the epitome of sorrowful dignity: “Together with all of our people, I now pay my heartfelt tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war, both on the battlefields and elsewhere, and pray for world peace and for the continuing development of our country.”
By contrast, Abe gave a long, carefully crafted statement that rambled between the past and the future, trying to touch all the bases and satisfy his domestic supporters as well as foreign doubters. It was an impossible task, which turned into a sorry apology of an apology.
At one point, Abe offered an apologia for Japan’s conduct. He claimed that Japan’s victory in the 1905 war with Russia “gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Africa to Asia.” Then he blamed Japan’s isolation after World War I and its broken political system for leading it to challenge the international order. “Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war,” he conceded.
Watching him, his body language was wrong, awkward, contorted. The experience was not helped by listening to the halting English translation as Abe spoke, unconvincing.
After expressing his “feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences,” for the destruction of war, Abe listed some victims. First of all, he talked of Japanese victims. The prime minister said: “More than three million of our compatriots lost their lives during the war: on the battlefields, worrying about the future of their homeland and wishing for the happiness of their families; in remote foreign countries after the war, in extreme cold or heat, suffering from starvation and disease. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the air raids on Tokyo and other cities, and the ground battles in Okinawa, among others, took a heavy toll among ordinary citizens without mercy.”
Only then did Abe turn to victims of “countries that fought against Japan” and young people whose promising lives were cut short.
It was sadly typical that Abe was not brave enough to name the “comfort women,” or the people massacred in Nanjing or victims of other atrocities. In war stuff does happen, but often because purblind politicians pursue disastrous nationalistic policies or commanders make wrong or bad decisions and soldiers are driven by hatred. Evil prevails.
Perhaps the mass fire-bombings of Japan, the atomic atrocities and the slaughter on Okinawa might have been avoided if Japan’s military high command had not crazily refused to understand that the war was not going Japan’s way and had been prepared to talk. Japan’s leaders owe an immense apology to their own people for misleading them and taking them to war and the horrors beyond.
Even when Abe mentioned the buzzwords, including “apology,” he was passing on the apologies of previous governments. He did not make his own.
The prime minister clearly wanted to draw a line under his non-apology, so that Japan would not apologize any more. He declared: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”
Japanese nationalists ask: “How many times must we apologize?” But it is for the victim to decide whether the apology is acceptable or sincere, not for the victimizer to decide enough is enough.
Equally, the persistent offering of homage at Yasukuni undermines the sincerity, and the failure of Japanese nationalists to understand how the rest of the world sees that action should make Japan pause to think. Apologists for the shrine visits say that the class A war criminals are 0.00053 percent of those enshrined at Yasukuni. Most people do go to pray for the souls of their loved ones. But the shrine and the adjoining Yushukan (war victory museum) are a defiant nationalist “no surrender” to the rest of the world.
What does it matter? For the past 70 years, as Abe stated, Japan has pursued a policy of peace and development, helped “through the goodwill and assistance extended to us that transcended hatred by a truly large number of countries, such as the United States, Australia and European nations, which Japan had fiercely fought against as enemies.”
It is interesting that Abe did not try to bring China into this friendly embrace or note how the two countries helped each other’s development once Deng Xiaoping had opened China’s door to the world. The prime minister should re-think his blind eye to such an important neighbor.
Abe firmly promised to dedicate Japan to peaceful settlements of disputes and to “uphold basic values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights as unyielding values … hoist the flag of ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace,’ and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world more than ever before.”
What could go wrong? Already there is a war of words over territories in the China seas, Beijing is busily building on disputed islands, China and Japan are boosting military spending; Abe is undermining of what the rest of the world understands as democracy, by passing of a secrecy law, expanding the role of Japan’s military in defiance of popular wishes, trying to rein in the media.
One might question how whole Japan’s political system is today when one man decides and drives almost everything from security and defense to the secrecy law, university policies and costs of the Olympic Games.
Edmund Burke wrote more than 220 years ago: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Other philosophers have said similar things. Abe should remember. The rest of the world should worry about his failure to understand. After the failure of “Abenomics,” Abe should ask whether he is driving Japan toward dangerous “Abegeddon.”
Kevin Rafferty is a longtime journalist and commentator on Asia.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.