Prime Minister Shinzo Abe commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II by releasing a highly anticipated statement to make amends to Japan’s neighbors.
Abe went further than many would predicted even recently in acknowledging Japan’s wartime actions. Most notably, he included several key phrases from statements by his predecessors, including aggression, colonial rule, remorse, and apology.
South Korea, a victim of harsh Japanese occupation during 1910-1945, had made clear that inclusion of the phrases was critical for any significant improvement in strained bilateral relations. Whether Abe’s statement went far enough remains to be seen.
Abe’s statement upheld Japan’s previous government statements of remorse by both repeating important passages from them and by declaring that those statements “will remain unshakable into the future.” Prior to resuming office in December 2012, Abe had made a number of statements questioning if not rejecting Japanese responsibility for the Pacific war and the Japanese military’s role in forcing women into sexual slavery, so-called “comfort women.”
He had also hinted at revising or abandoning the important Kono and Murayama statements. This led many to predict Abe would adopt severely revisionist policies. These predictions, rather than Abe’s actions, have driven much of the commentary of his policies.
As prime minister, Abe adopted a more pragmatic approach by repeatedly affirming his administration would uphold his predecessors’ statements.
Yet, the tone of his remarks and often narrow legalistic interpretation of Japan’s responsibilities undermined his efforts at putting Tokyo’s past actions behind it.
Moreover, Abe’s refusal to condemn extremist views expressed by other politicians, including those serving as close advisors, exacerbated tensions with South Korea.
Abe’s cabinet approved today’s statement which makes it an official Japanese government position. This is commendable.
He had originally indicated he would release only a “forward-looking” personal statement, raising concerns of a revisionist abandonment of preceding statements of remorse. Once again, Abe ran counter to negative predictions.
While Abe included the right words, his tone and context may work against efforts to gain reconciliation with Seoul.
His references to Western power colonialism were an unnecessary explanation — some might even interpret as justification — for Japan’s aggressive actions, which he later characterized as “the wrong course.”
The principle shortcoming will be his terse indirect reference to the “comfort women.”
The issue, which serves a proxy for all Japanese transgressions during its occupation of the Korean Peninsula, has become the principal focus of intense South Korean distrust and animosity toward Japan and Prime Minister Abe. He stated, “we must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.”
The words “honor and dignity” echo those from Cabinet Secretary Kono’s important 1993 statement. However, Abe did not include Kono’s direct acknowledgement that Japanese military authorities were involved in recruiting the women against their will through coercion.
Overall, Abe’s statement is commendable for being Cabinet-approved and including the key phrases that even this week remained a topic of conflicting media reports of whether he would embrace them.
His comments are certainly far, far better than most experts and pundits would have predicted a year ago.
That said, Abe should have gone further in acknowledging Japan’s direct role in coercing women into sexual slavery for its military. A more direct outreach specifically to South Korea would have provided a stronger foundation for lowering tensions, improving relations, and even reconciliation.
This was a lost opportunity that may hinder his legacy as well as his policies, particularly having Japan implement defense reforms such as collective self-defense.
Focus will now turn to President Park Geun-hye and her response. Will she accept Abe’s positive, if flawed, attempt at outeach by agreeing to compartmentalize historic issues from present-day security challenges and policy opportunities?
Or will she reject the statement as not sufficiently “sincere” — the threshold she has previously demanded.
There is a viable path forward for Japanese-South Korean rapprochement. It will not be easy and will require both Abe and Park to show strong and bold leadership by standing up to the fervent nationalist elements in their countries that have worked against reconcilement.
Let’s hope both leaders are willing to do so.