Why Japanese PM Shinzo Abe comes up short on WWII history and contrition

01:39 - Source: CNN
Japan's Prime Minister has 'grief' over WWII

Story highlights

Shinzo Abe's WWII apology allows for varying interpretations

It's a 'teeth-clenched repetition of stuff that earlier Prime Ministers said'

Beijing and Seoul are disappointed by what Abe left unsaid

Editor’s Note: Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. He’s the author of “Asian Nationalism Since 1945.” The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Tokyo CNN —  

The statement by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be parsed and dissected in detail over the coming months and years as its ambiguities and vagueness allow for varying interpretation.

It is like a Rorschach test, where different audiences will project different meanings based on what Abe said – and left unsaid – conveying what they want to hear and did not want to hear.

Within Japan opinions are divided along ideological lines – Abe enjoying the support of the right, and criticism from the left with the caveat that reactionaries were disappointed that he demonstrated any contrition at all.

Those on the left complained that he failed to clearly express a heartfelt, personal apology and it looked like he was just going through the motions. While Abe may have done just enough to satisfy critics in the United States, and Washington’s pro-Abe Japan hands are touting the statement’s merits, Beijing and Seoul are disappointed by what Abe left unsaid.

READ: Neighbors lash out at ‘apology’ 

As a leading revisionist, Abe has spent his entire career repudiating apology diplomacy and what he describes as masochistic history. He is a polarizing figure in Japan, a neo-con nationalist who has criticized the 1995 Murayama Statement for the past two decades and undermined the 1993 Kono Statement regarding responsibility for the so-called comfort women system.

In contrast to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who accepted Germany’s “everlasting responsibility,” for its actions during the same period, Abe conveyed perpetrators’ fatigue, avoiding offering his own apology and expressing hope that future generations of Japanese would not also be required to do so.

But calling for an end to apologies before Japan has embraced a forthright reckoning of its shared history with Asia is counterproductive.

A recent NHK poll indicated that 42% of Japanese support an apology for the war, while only 15% oppose such gestures. So Abe’s belief that Japan has done enough on the apology front is not driven by public sentiment.

Watered down

True, Abe went further than he has in the past in expressing contrition and noting the suffering Japan inflicted, but that is not saying much.

As a friend related, Abe’s statement is, “a watered-down version of the Yushukan – the military museum adjacent to Yasukuni Shrine – version of the road to war, a recognition that things were probably tough for a lot of women, a teeth-clenched repetition of stuff that earlier Prime Ministers said.” 

Abe was vague precisely where he needed to be more specific and spoke of apology in the past tense. On wartime aggression, colonial rule and the controversial issue of comfort women, Abe dodged detailed and forthright acknowledgment of what Japan inflicted on Asians.

Afterwards former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama complained that Abe’s statement did not clearly reflect or embrace the spirit of his historic 1995 statement that serves as the gold standard of Japanese mea culpa. Abe seems in a rush to turn the page on the past before it has been fully recognized.

READ: Forgotten faces: Japan’s comfort women  

While he made a circumspect effort to offer the olive branch to China, Seoul is exasperated with Abe’s roundabout and evasive comments. President Park Geun-hye said his speech left much to be desired and that you can’t hide history because it is alive in people’s memories.  Abe’s reference to the comfort women was excessively vague and there was little to assuage Korean sentiments.

At home, Abe hoped to offset his image as a war-mongering authoritarian by appearing reasonable on history issues and reiterating his support for continued peace and prosperity, but it is unlikely that he changed anyone’s mind.

Most Japanese oppose his new security legislation because he seems intent on undermining the Peace Constitution that has become intrinsic to national identity. They worry that Abe’s proactive pacifism will put Japan in harms way, and his statement and subsequent media appearances have done little to improve his image.

Overall, Abe appeared unrepentant, outsourced contrition to his predecessors and failed the apology test. It is naïve to assume that an apology is the magic wand of regional reconciliation in northeast Asia, but equally naïve to think that it is not crucial to the process.

After eight months of Abe reducing expectations, his statement exceeded what many expected, but still fell short of what is necessary. Abe remains equivocal about Japan’s wartime past and therefore failed to overcome reservations about his views and leadership.

READ: Former Zero pilot laments Japan’s wartime past