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Risking fallout with neighbors

Gabriel DomínguezAugust 14, 2015

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe's failure to express a clear "heartfelt apology" for his country's actions during World War II reflects a missed opportunity to ease tensions that have haunted the region for decades, experts say.

Japan Shinzo Abe Ansprache im Kabinett
Image: Reuters/T. Hanai

It would have been an ideal occasion for the Japanese PM to defuse tensions over his country's wartime past, which still haunts ties with neighboring China and South Korea. But despite upholding past apologies from his predecessors for the country's actions in World War II, the nationalist premier failed again to issue a personal "heartfelt apology."

In a televised address on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Japan's unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, Abe expressed "utmost grief" over the loss of life in the global conflict and acknowledged his country's military had inflicted "immeasurable damage and suffering" on innocent people.

But he added that future generations should not have to apologize for Tokyo's wartime record. "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 for it," Abe said. The Japanese leader also stressed his country's desire to move forward, while taking "the lessons of history deeply into our hearts."

'Deliberately indirect fashion'

But what does this mean? "Looking closely at the premier's statement, it can be seen that Abe himself is not making an apology," said James Brown, a Japan expert at Temple University's campus in Tokyo.

Japan Kapitulation USS Missouri 2. September 1945
Japan declared its unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945Image: picture-alliance/dpa/United States Library Of Congres

"The PM is instead simply noting that several Japanese leaders have made apologies in the past and that he is not going to contradict them directly. He confirms this as being his stance by also stating that 'Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future,'" Brown told DW.

In the run-up to the speech, many had hoped that Abe would follow the path of past prime ministers in a bid to ease tensions with neighboring countries. In fact, China and South Korea had called on the PM to stick to a 1995 statement by then Japanese Premier Tomiichi Murayama, which became a benchmark for subsequent apologies.

Back then, Murayama had acknowledged that Japan "through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations." He expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for Japan's wartime actions.

But while Abe's latest speech did include key terms such as "colonial rule" and "aggression," analyst Brown explains that, in reality, they were used in a "deliberately indirect fashion."

"Abe might have kept to the letter of the Murayama statement, but certainly not to its spirit," said the expert.

'A retrogression'

The Japanese leader's statement was closely watched by Japan's neighbors, where resentment still runs high over the invasion, occupation and atrocities carried out by the Japanese military before and during WWII.

China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, criticized the speech as "watered-down" and a "retrogression" from past apologies, thus marking only "a crippled start to build trust among its neighbors." "The adulterated apology is far from being enough for Japan's neighbors and the broader international community to lower their guard," Xinhua wrote in a commentary.

Südkorea Anti-Japan Proteste in Seoul
The issue of comfort women has strained Japan's ties with South Korea and China time and againImage: Reuters/J. Yeon-Je

"Abe trod a fine line with linguistic tricks, attempting to please his right-wing base on the one hand and avoid further damage in Japan's ties with its neighbors on the other. By adding that it is unnecessary for Japan's future generations to keep apologizing, Abe seemed to say that his once-for-all apology can close the page of history," China's official news agency added.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se called on Japan to take "sincere action" over the history issue, according to Yonhap news agency. Yun added his government was scrutinizing the new statement and that it would soon unveil its formal position.

"Abe missed an opportunity to take the moral high ground and make clear the wrongs undertaken by Japan’s Imperialist forces," said Shihoko Goto, an East Asia analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. The expert explained that just as Germany today makes clear the horrors of Nazism, Abe, too, could have made clear the aggressions of Imperialist Japan, and, at the same time, shown that Japan today is not that of the past.

Historical controversies

The wording of Abe's WWII anniversary speech had been the subject of debate since the beginning of the year, given that the PM has been associated with a number of revisionist claims about Japan's wartime and imperial aggression, including statements that mitigate the Japanese state's role in recruiting so-called "comfort women."

The term is used to refer to an estimated 100,000 women from conquered territories who were coerced or tricked into becoming sex slaves for the Japanese military.

Many conservatives in Japan still deny that the women were kidnapped and insist that they were merely well-paid prostitutes. They also claim that the women were employed by brokers, so the military and the Japanese government bear no responsibility for their treatment. The issue has strained Japan's relations with South Korea and China time and again.

Ties between the neighbors have also been affected by visits paid by Japanese politicians, including Abe, to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including 14 convicted "Class A" war criminals.

Being evasive

This is why Kristin Surak, a senior lecturer of Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London, argues that not everyone had expected Abe to issue an apology. "In most of his public statements to date, the PM has been evasive, referring to prior apologies rather than offering direct statements of regret," Surak told DW.

For instance, in a landmark address to a joint session of the US Congress this April, Abe acknowledged that Japan's actions had "brought suffering" to the peoples of other parts of Asia but stopped short of issuing an unequivocal apology.

Moreover, analyst Surak pointed out that Abe - who has a reputation of being an unabashed nationalist - serves as an advisor to the ultranationalist grouping Nippon Kaigi, which has a strong revisionist platform, asserting, for example, that standard accounts of the Nanjing Massacre are grossly exaggerated or fabricated.

Expanding the military's role

The premier's statements come as he pushes for a more robust defense policy. Despite growing public discontent, the PM - whose approval ratings have dropped to 40 percent - has been seeking to revise Japan's security policy and reinterpret the country's US-drafted 1947 pacifist constitution in a bid to expand the role of the East Asian nation's Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Abe believes the constitutional restraints imposed on the armed forces have become a hindrance to deeper military collaboration with allies such as the United States. To justify his policy aims, Abe has also pointed to China's maritime advance abroad and recent tensions over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both nations.

As a result, Japan's lower house of parliament recently passed security bills that for the first time since World War II could allow the country's armed forces to fight alongside allied nations in case of an attack.

Goto is therefore of the view that Abe's speech ultimately had a twofold purpose: "Firstly, to address the concerns of Japanese voters wary of Abe’s efforts to reinterpret the existing constitution and push for collective self defense. Secondly, to improve relations with Korea and China by addressing historical grievances."

US pressure

But while the US and several Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam welcomed Japan's decision to revise defense laws, China and South Korea have remained highly critical of Abe's attempts at revising Japan's defense policy.

This is why analysts believe that a key factor behind Abe's carefully crafted speech on Friday might have been US pressure. "The US is very much concerned about keeping regional tensions in check as the Japanese military expands. This is an expansion that the US supports, but it has contributed to heightened tensions within the region, which the US will want to dissipate," Surak said.

This view is shared by Temple University's Brown, who added that there would possibly have been no statement whatsoever had Abe been free to do what he wished. "Washington regards tensions over history as a cause of insecurity in North East Asia, and the US government would urgently like historical problems between Japan and South Korea to be overcome so that closer security relations can develop between its two major allies in the region," the expert said.

Japan Militär Soldaten Luftwaffe
Abe is pushing for a more robust defense policy to deepen military collaboration with allies such as the USImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Nogi

Reconciliatory efforts needed

One of the complaints frequently heard within Japan is that there is no apology that a Japanese leader could make that would fully satisfy China and Korea.

And given that there are groups on both the Japanese side and that of its neighbors who are not actually interested in settling these historical issues, one might argue that there was only a very slight possibility, if any, of Abe's statement conclusively putting an end to East Asia's tensions over history.

Given these circumstances, the dispute over the wartime past is likely to continue, particularly as nationalist claims have become a tool in the region for distracting populaces from harder political debates. As analyst Surak pointed out: "Historical memory concerning colonization and war has risen to the fore in the region since the end of the Cold War. Given its politicization, reconciliatory efforts from all sides will be needed to work through the issues involved."

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