Editorial: Abe’s statement to mark anniversary of war’s end; too vague on important points

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered his statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war at a press conference yesterday after the statement’s approval by a Cabinet resolution. Did he accurately sum up what the war was all about? How does he feel about Japan’s responsibility for the harm it inflicted on other Asian countries? Assessments of the statement will likely diverge on these points.

Mr. Abe’s statement incorporated all of the expressions such as “aggression,” “colonial rule,” “deep remorse” and “apology” that were used in the statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to mark the 50th anniversary of the war and that became the focus of attention. He also vowed more than once that Japan would never wage war again.

The key words to be used in Mr. Abe’s statement were kept secret until very recently, and it was believed he would mainly tout Japan’s international contributions by way of focusing on the future.

At the last minute he undoubtedly recognized the need to show diplomatic consideration for China and South Korea, whose perceptions of history differ from that of Japan. The headwinds he faces as a result of strong opposition to his security bills may also have been a factor.

He did delve into some areas more than expected. For example, although he made no direct reference to the issue of “comfort women” for the Japanese military, which is a matter of concern between Japan and South Korea, we noted that he did say that “there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.”

Perhaps in a message directed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the prime minister also said, “Japan will fulfill its responsibility in the international community, aiming at the non-proliferation and ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons.” So it is clear that he tried to demonstrate concern for various quarters.

But it is a fact that he was vague on some important points and did not articulate a clear position on them.

With regard to the word “apology,” one focus of attention, the prime minister noted that previous Cabinets have apologized to other Asian nations for Japan’s actions during the war saying, “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology.” And he emphasized that this stance would not change.

So, he merely referred indirectly to previous apologies. Nothing he said can be regarded as a clear apology from Mr. Abe himself. This is quite different from Mr. Murayama’s statement and that of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on the 60th anniversary of the war’s end, which adhered to Mr. Murayama’s statement.

The same goes for “aggression.” This word was included in the statement, but it was not used in a clear reference to Japan’s actions in China or other nations. When stating that Japan would “never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” Mr. Abe stuck to general terms citing only “incident, aggression, war.” Naturally, people will say that the prime minister took a big step back from the report of an expert advisory panel on the statement, which recognized Japan’s actions starting with the Manchurian Incident as aggression.

With regard to “colonial rule” as well, there was nothing that clearly indicated that Mr. Abe feels remorse for Japan’s oppressive rule over the Korean Peninsula.

His roundabout expressions instead highlighted the prime minister’s perception of history. In short, he didn’t want to say anything conclusive. In fact, at the press conference as well he didn’t clearly state whether or not the war had been an act of aggression. This suggests that there has been no change in his position that “the definition of ‘aggression’ has not been established under international law.”

If he raises the suspicion that he is hiding from the facts, not only will his statement fail to arouse widespread sympathy, it will be an impediment to future attempts to improve relations.

In his statement, Mr. Abe said, “We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come … be predestined to apologize.” If the prime minister really feels that way, he should have clearly outlined what Japan, which was the aggressor in the war, should do to forge good relations with China and South Korea. If this task remains incomplete, it is anything but the “proactive contribution to peace” the prime minister referred to in his statement.

(Originally published on August 15, 2015)