What’s in a word? As Japan’s leader prepares to issue a statement Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, attention is focused on the words he will use – and the ones he won’t.
The phrases “aggression,” “colonial rule,” “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” were all part of Japan’s landmark apology on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end in 1995. Depending on which words he uses, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could either further roil his country’s relations with China and South Korea or boost ongoing efforts to improve them.
Both neighbours will be watching to see if Abe waters down past Japanese apologies. He has said repeatedly that his government stands behind them, but he has also made comments that have raised doubts about how sincerely he believes them.
THE WORDS TO WATCH FOR
REMORSE VS. APOLOGY
In the 1995 statement, prime minister Tomiichi Murayama expressed “feelings of deep remorse” and “my heartfelt apology” for the damage and suffering caused by Japan’s colonial rule and aggression. The country’s first acknowledgement of its wartime wrongdoing was criticized by the right-wing at home as too humble.
Abe has used the phrase “deep remorse” but not “apology.” He told the U.S. Congress in April that Japan started its postwar path “bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse over the war,” and acknowledged that “our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries.” He said in May, however, that his “remorse” was “regret in general” and not for specific wartime actions.
The Japanese word translated as “remorse” is hansei, and means to reflect on past actions, generally negative ones. It implies having done something wrong, but is more like “regret” than saying “I’m sorry.” Apology, or owabi, often comes with financial compensation or other action to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
Some Japanese media, citing unnamed sources and in one case an unpublished draft of the statement, have reported this week that Abe will use the word “apology,” but not how or in what context.
Japan invaded China and several Southeast Asian countries, but Abe among others has questioned whether that qualifies as “aggression.”
In April, 2013, he told parliament “there is no clear definition” of aggression either academically or internationally, and that “in country-to-country relations, it depends on from which side you look at it. From such a viewpoint, I think such problems can be pointed out regarding this [1995 Murayama] statement.”
Japan had long used the word “advance” instead of “aggression,” including in school textbooks. However, a recent report by an expert panel advising Abe on his statement described Japan’s wartime activities as aggression. It noted though that some panel members disagreed, in part because they didn’t think that Japan should be singled out when other countries took similar actions.
This phrase has been less contentious, though the Abe government said in March that both aggression and colonial rule are difficult to define. Abe, however, said in June that his government has never denied colonial rule. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945, and its people were made part of the war effort – as troops, forced factory and mine workers and sex slaves – so-called “comfort women” – in brothels for the military.
The issue of Japan’s exploitation of women from across Asia as prostitutes for troops was the subject of a separate apology in 1993, and remains a key area of difference with South Korea.
During an earlier stint as prime minister in 2007, Abe’s government adopted a statement saying there is no written proof that the military forcibly recruited the women. He said last year that Japan has been wrongfully accused of systematically forcing them into sexual slavery.
Most experts agree that, based on interviews with victims and other records, many of the South Korean women were deceived by promises of other work, and not allowed to leave once they got to the brothels.
Abe has started acknowledging that the women are victims of “human trafficking,” but without acknowledging government responsibility.
Last week marked other grim milestones for Japan: The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.