WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s much anticipated statement regarding the 70th anniversary of World War II’s conclusion had all the key words for which potential critics abroad had been looking: “aggression”; “injury”; “utmost grief”; and “remorse.” It even mentioned “heartfelt apology,” carefully phrased as a sentiment that Japan had repeatedly expressed in the past.
Abe’s statement enumerated, often eloquently, the objects of past injury — Japanese compatriots, first and foremost, but also foreign prisoners of war (rarely mentioned before); and even “women behind the battlefield.” There were also plenty of verbs describing, sometimes vividly, what had happened to the victims, with the word “suffering” mentioned numerous times, both as verb and noun.
What was strikingly missing in this statement was the subjects of so many sentences: just who it was that had caused the suffering and misery, of which Abe spoke so eloquently.
It was, as one American acquaintance of mine remarked, as though a massive, unidentified historical tsunami had swept across Asia and the Pacific, leaving tremendous destruction in its path, with its origins unknown.
There is, of course, a vigorous — indeed, impassioned — international debate about wartime responsibility, which is exactly why omitting sentence subjects was likely a shrewd tactical choice.
Many of Japan’s neighbors blame unprovoked attacks and colonial oppression stemming unambiguously from Japan itself. Japanese nationalists, by contrast, tend to blame the predatory, imperialist environment prevailing broadly across the world in the first half of the 20th century.
Abe’s statement falls clearly into the second category, by transcending the wartime experience to dwell on colonialist rivalries throughout the past century and more, thus relativizing Japan’s actions.
Yet the prime minister avoided an intensified argument with his critics by rendering his own formal views on the intensely controversial question of war responsibility deeply ambiguous, even while noting subtly that “positions articulated by previous Cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.”
There was, however, one memorable sentence in which Abe presented subject, verb, and object crystal clearly: “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.”
He thus opted out of the World War II apology competition, in which Germany and his recent predecessors, including Koizumi, Murayama, and Kono, have explicitly engaged. It appears to have been a calculated political gamble — how will it be viewed in the eye of history?
However unsatisfactory a tactical approach to historical interpretation may be in intellectual or grammatical terms, it does, I think, represent the safest course for the Abe administration, diplomatically and politically, under the current circumstances.
Certain neighboring countries, which find it useful to marginalize or inhibit Japan’s regional role, would be critical of Abe on history virtually regardless of what he said.
The substantial expressions of remorse in his Aug. 14 statement undercut the credibility of their efforts to undermine his standing with the major allies of Japan and important neutrals in India, the Middle East and ASEAN.
Further, Abe’s ambiguities regarding historical responsibility are alternatively neglected by, incomprehensible to, or — occasionally — applauded by those allies and neutrals, who were generally more distant from the actual theaters of war, and vague on wartime details, than Japan’s neighbors in any case.
In assessing American reactions, in particular, it is important to realize how limited general public consciousness of the Pacific War now is in the United States. From 1948 to 1975, “VJ-Day” (the anniversary of “victory over Japan”, declared by President Harry Truman to be celebrated on Sept. 2) was commemorated as a U.S. national holiday. Today, there is no federal holiday, and only one U.S. state (Rhode Island) continues to recognize “Victory Day,” as it is now known, even as a state holiday.
Even in this historic 70th anniversary year, there were only a handful of commemorations across the U.S., in contrast to the elaborate celebrations in Moscow, Beijing, and even London.
World War II in the Pacific, in short, is clearly fading into the past for Americans, who see virtually no need today to be triumphalist or vindictive about it. Abe’s understated anniversary statement was thus received quietly, and in general positively, in the U.S.
Britain and the Netherlands continue to celebrate VJ-Day, although Australia, despite bitter wartime experiences in Southeast Asia, no longer does so, and has received Japan’s recent overtures well; Prime Minister Tony Abbott was, in fact, one of the few major world leaders to personally welcome Abe’s Aug. 14 statement, despite its failure to deliver an explicit apology from Abe himself.
Southeast Asia, to which Abe has devoted substantial diplomatic attention, seems to have been quiet on the anniversary as well.
That leaves China and South Korea, which continue to celebrate Japan’s defeat. Neither Beijing nor Seoul could be expected to welcome the failure of Abe’s Aug. 14 statement to deliver an explicit apology.
Yet given the apparent instabilities in the Chinese economy, a South Korean economic dependence on China that has been worrying many in Seoul, and the informal prospect of an impending trilateral Japan-China-South Korea summit before the end of 2014, both the Chinese and the South Korean governments seem to be growing pragmatic, adopting a “two-track” approach, and leaving the continued agitation for apologies largely to NGOs, including ethnic compatriot groups based in the U.S.
If the diplomatic calculations of the prime minister’s office are proving astute in the short run, what are the longer-term implications of Abe’s historical grammar: a stance full of verbs and objects, but absent sentence subjects and any clear assumption of responsibility?
Such an approach can readily produce “frozen conflict,” which seems to de-escalate short-term tensions. Yet it cannot produce authentic reconciliation. That requires sincere, objective debate; unbiased, conscientious education; and deepened cultural contact — all crucial imperatives for the future on all sides, even if they could not be realistically pursued this year.
Kent E. Calder is director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University in Washington.