As part of the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in the Pacific, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke in a nationally-televised event about the deep remorse his nation felt over the events of the war.
While many in Japan seem satisfied that Abe appropriately helped put the past in its place, most outside Japan expressed disappointment in his well-chosen words.
Did Abe accidentally miss the mark in his speech, or did he purposefully hit his target dead on?
Abe’s speech emphasized remorse. “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” He acknowledged Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” when it “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.”
But in the same text, Abe also said “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,” emphasizing that 80% of Japan’s population was born after 1945. He blamed the western colonial powers for entering Asia in the 19th century, and mentioned Japan’s civilian casualties in the specific — Hiroshima, Tokyo, Okinawa — without touching on events such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre, which took 300,000 Chinese lives, the importation of Koreans into Japan for forced labor and the sexual enslavement of 200,000 so-called “comfort women” throughout Asia.
Criticism of Abe’s speech from abroad was sharp. China’s Xinhua news agency said the speech was insincere, and his “adulterated apology is far from being enough for Japan’s neighbors and the broader international community to lower their guard.” Abe, Xinhua said, sought to “close the page of history.” In South Korea, which calls August 15, the day of Japan agreed to surrender to the U.S., Liberation Day, President Park Geun-hye said Abe’s statement “left much to be desired.”
The duality of Abe’s words was not by any accident, and he took great pains to ensure any explanations or condolences would not be confused for an apology. Why?
Whenever a senior Japanese leader speaks of the war, he must parse out where he will create offense, because in the pattern that has evolved in East Asia, no Japanese leader can satisfy both his domestic and international audiences. He must decide where to spend his points.
Abe’s choice fell solidly on the domestic side, not unexpected given his drive to remilitarize Japan. The word “apology” in the context of the war is seen by conservatives in Japan, which include many of the wealthy donors who support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party party, as near-profanity. The same for specific mentions of events such as Nanjing or Japan’s system of sexual slavery; many in the far right-wing in Tokyo still deny those events took place. Abe referring to Japan’s own losses as he mentioned Japan’s victims, was a sop to his supporters and, by Asian sensibilities, a slap in the face to those who died under Japan’s hand.
Some in Japan will respond by asking how many times must they apologize for events that most young people in Japan barely know about. The answer lies in comparing Japan’s post-war actions to Germany’s.
Abe appointed unapologetic revisionists to high-profile posts, and has made visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted of war crimes are enshrined along with millions of fallen soldiers and sailors. The Shrine also hosts a museum of World War II artifacts, including a locomotive from occupied Manchuria seen as an endorsement of Japanese colonial ambitions. Though with no connection to Abe, many in Asia are also acutely aware that World War II Emperor Hirohito’s son sits on the throne in Japan.
Unlike in Germany, what happened was never kneaded into Japan’s national consciousness, something that underlies Abe’s recent speech, and actions as Prime Minister.
Understanding Abe’s speech, and Japan’s actions, through Chinese or Korean eyes can be difficult. But imagine a German government beholden to Holocaust deniers, one that deletes its Nazi legacy from textbooks, one that never apologized and compensated its victims, and one where the Prime Minister made a yearly pilgrimage to a site holy to the National Socialists, perhaps with an attached museum featuring rail cars from Dachau. All with Hitler’s son as the symbolic head of state.
So when a Japanese Prime Minister stands to speak of the Pacific War, he speaks in a type of code, including certain words he knows will please his domestic audience, and knowingly leaving out many others whose omissions offend and inflame much of his international listeners. Shinzo Abe choose his words with great care, and hit his target this time dead solid perfect.
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