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Time goes by, but not guilt

August 14, 2015

Despite acknowledging Japan's wartime aggression, Shinzo Abe did not give a reconciliation speech. But that was not to be expected from the nationalist PM, says DW's Alexander Freund.

Japan Ministerpräsident Shinzo Abe Weltkriegsrede in Tokio
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai

In a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, Japan's nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally managed to express critical words about his country's wartime past. He spoke of "deep remorse" and "regret," and admitted that the nation's military had inflicted "immeasurable damage and suffering" to the peoples of Asia.

These were the key words and messages that Abe needed to deliver. This was important. Abe could no longer pull off another tactic, and he had to confess to Japan's historic guilt. But appearances are deceptive. Abe's speech was not a great reconciliation speech, but rather a very pragmatic one pointing to the future.

Abe remained extremely vague when addressing several sensitive issues. He did not issue an apology for the tens of thousands of "comfort women" who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Instead, Abe spoke in general terms about the suffering of thousands of women far away from the front lines.

Both victim and perpetrator

Trust is not built upon such vague formulations, even though the Japanese PM may be genuinely interested in establishing peaceful and prosperous relationships with his country's neighbors. Accordingly, the speech did not go down well with the Koreans and Chinese.

While Abe's speech may have not lived up to expectations, it certainly was carefully crafted. It placed Japan's aggression in a historic context by bringing to mind the less laudable colonial policy of Western nations.

Freund Alexander Kommentarbild App
DW Asia's Alexander Freund

It is as if the PM had wanted to tell neighboring countries: "Look, Japan wasn't the only one doing this. Other countries had similarly aggressive policies." Abe spoke of the "immeasurable damage and suffering" caused by Japan, but also referred to the high number of Japanese casualties and reminded the world that Japan has been the only victim of a nuclear attack to this day.

Japan was not only a victim, but also perpetrator. Abe was also grateful for the support provided by other nations which helped bring the country out of the ruins of World War II. While taking "the lessons of history deeply into our hearts," the Japanese leader also pointed to his country's desire to move forward and play a key role as a regional power, say, in the fight against nuclear proliferation.

A missed opportunity

But the speech also gave an insight into what the Japanese leader stands for. He knows that the past casts a long shadow, the suffering has not been forgotten and that mistrust is as present as ever before. And yet, Abe has promised to restore Japan's strength, both economically as well as geopolitically. He wants to deepen security ties with the US in an attempt to counter China's growing influence in the region.

But for this, he first needs to boost Japan's economy. And he also will have to revise the country's US-drafted postwar pacifist constitution despite growing public discontent in Japan.

While Abe missed a historic opportunity for reconciliation, one also has to admit that the present conditions to achieve this are very bad indeed. Nationalist tendencies are growing stronger not only in Tokyo, but also in Beijing and Seoul, where South Korean President Park Geun-hye is seeking to clearly distance her country from that of the former occupier.

Historic responsibility

And North Korea's regime is not capable of surviving without resorting to an extreme kind of nationalism which sees the US and Japan as the country's main adversaries. Nationalism is also on the rise in China as can be seen in Beijing's increasingly aggressive stance on its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

It's even possible that Beijing will keep on stoking nationalist sentiments as long as the national economy continues on its downward path. After all, it is a combination of economic growth and nationalism which has legitimized the political leadership in Beijing thus far. In this context, a visible effort to tackle foreign issues could also enable Chinese leaders to put critical internal issues on the back burner.

Nonetheless, given that Japan bears the historic responsibility, Tokyo must be the first to take a step toward reconciliation and rebuilding trust. Unfortunately, the country has wasted valuable time yet again. Now is the time to act. While reconciliation can help heal the wounds, the scars will remain. Time may go by, but guilt doesn't.

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