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Apology from Japan PM for WWII atrocities barely surpasses expectations

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has finally delivered his widely anticipated remarks on the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in the Second World War, and they will echo across northeast Asia, where Japan's vicious colonial aggression and war crimes still influence modern geopolitics.

"I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad," Mr. Abe said. "I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences."

His whole statement, on the surface, reads as an eloquent, thoughtful, historically wide-ranging and relatively measured treatment of Japan's long and painful path from the war to the present. It will strike many as statesmanlike. But Mr. Abe, true to his right-wing nationalist roots, did not issue the apology many had hoped for – a hope that was likely always in vain. Though contrite, he stressed his belief that Japan has apologized enough for its wartime record, and needs to regain national self-confidence, ensuring that what might have been the final act in a long line of endless apologies will be unsatisfactory to those in Asia who still feel victimized.

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"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," Mr. Abe said.

He used unambiguous words, but not in the way people traditionally do or in the ways people wanted to hear now – speaking of apologies and remorse, for example, but not apologizing himself. He also leaned on the forthrightness of his predecessors, rather than adding anything novel, and even included a gratuitous reference to a free-trade agreement whose imposition from Tokyo risks tearing the fabric of traditional farming life in Japan's hinterland.

To be fair, Mr. Abe has gone further than some expected – including a clear reference to so-called "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese military brothels. Importantly, Mr. Abe did not recant Japan's past apologies, specifically those by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, on the 50th anniversary, and chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, who acknowledged army brothels in 1993 – and this is important, since some feared he would. Mr. Abe even noted an "unshakeable commitment" to comments made by previous Japanese cabinets, a line sure to demoralize Japan's cottage industry of historical revisionists.

Still, China's Vice Foreign Minister said Mr. Abe "should make a clear explanation and a sincere apology," while South Korea's official news agency said the Japanese Prime Minister avoided making his own apology.

Mr. Abe's statement traces an historical arc that starts, rightly, long before Asia's war began in earnest in 1937 as the Imperial Japanese Army stormed China's eastern seaboard and committed atrocities that inflame and anger Asia to this day. He goes back to the 1800s, when Japan was an isolated island nation – one forced open in 1853 by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's gunboat diplomacy. Humiliated, Japan transformed itself in the Meiji Restoration under the slogan fukoku kyohei – or, "rich nation, strong army" – growing more powerful, studying the West, and slowly adding territories such as Okinawa, Formosa (now Taiwan) and Korea. Tokyo shocked the West by sinking Russia's mighty armada in 1905, Mr. Abe notes, giving inspiration to Asian intellectuals from Calcutta to Canton (now known as Guangzhou). Japan became intent on ridding Asia of its colonizers, eventually sweeping across China and Southeast Asia – mimicking and augmenting the worst of Western imperialism's brutality.

Japan, of course, then suffered atomic destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on a scale previously unfathomable and in a way that etched into the Japanese character a deep distrust of nuclear power that persists today. After that, the country witnessed more than half a century of peace and prosperity. First, that came under direct U.S. tutelage; later, it was as a fiercely independent economic power, albeit one that remains constrained as a regional leader by its past – and hobbled internationally by a pacifist constitution, which Mr. Abe is currently trying to dismantle. Mr. Abe's moves to allow the deployment of Japanese troops abroad, which are as deeply unpopular as his attempt to restart Japan's shuttered nuclear reactors, provide the light to illuminate a close reading of his statement now.

Long known to downplay Japan's wartime actions, Mr. Abe spoke of apology only at a distance, saying: "Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology." He also used the word aggression in the weakest way possible. "Incident, aggression, war – we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a measure of settling international disputes." And although some doubted he would even raise the issue of "comfort women," he did so only vaguely, referring to "women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured."

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One could argue, as many in Japan would, that Tokyo has apologized enough – and even, as some do, that formal apologies are counterproductive. Mr. Abe's remarks may never have been destined to end the cycle. And it is all too true that Japan's democracy no longer engages in human rights atrocities and aggression toward its neighbours, as China and North Korea still do.

Mr. Abe said much that was sensible and has avoided causing needless fury with a provocative, right-wing tirade that justified Japan's wartime actions. But he has likewise not taken an obvious opportunity to definitively mend frayed relations with South Korea, or build any trust with China.

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