TOKYO: Japan’s nationalist prime minister was to deliver a war anniversary statement Friday that neighboring nations, particularly China and South Korea, will scrutinize for signs of sufficient remorse over Tokyo’s past militarism.
The words that Shinzo Abe chooses to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II carry symbolic importance as the official government view on Japan’s past — and could set future relations with countries that suffered from its brutal march across Asia.
Japan’s wartime history has come under a renewed focus since Abe swept to power in late 2012.
The 60-year-old — criticized by some for playing down Japan’s past and trying to expand the role of the military — had not specified what he would say on the eve of the anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender to the Allies in 1945.
But any attempt to tone down explicit apologies made by previous leaders could anger China and South Korea, and draw a diplomatic scolding from close ally Washington.
Abe’s statement was expected early Friday evening after a cabinet meeting with a press briefing to follow around 6:00 pm local time (0900 GMT).
The issue has been top news in Japan, with public broadcaster NHK reporting that Abe would use the words “apology” and “aggression,” which are found in a landmark 1995 statement issued by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama.
The so-called Murayama Statement, which became a benchmark for subsequent apologies, expressed “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage” inflicted, particularly in Asia.
On Friday, the top-selling Yomiuri newspaper said “aggression” and “remorse” were likely to be in Abe’s remarks, as well as pacifist Japan’s “gratitude” for its positive post-war image in the international community.
A ‘reckless war’
Abe himself had said only that he would express remorse and follow previous prime ministerial apologies “as a whole.”
That has raised eyebrows after he repeatedly talked of the need for what he calls a “forward-looking attitude” that concentrates on the positive role his country has played in Asia in the post-war years.
Abe has also made waves by quibbling over the definition of “invade,” and provoked anger by downplaying Tokyo’s formalized system of sex slavery in military brothels.
A 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine — seen by Japan’s neighbors as a potent symbol of its militarist past — sent relations with Beijing and Seoul to their lowest point in decades, aggravating simmering territorial disputes.
While Abe’s nationalism tends to be popular on the political right, Japan’s own national self-narrative has over the decades been one more of victim of the US atomic bombings and a war-mongering government, rather than colonialist aggressor largely responsible for an ill-fated Pacific conflict.
China says more than 20 million of its citizens died as a result of Japan’s invasion, occupation and atrocities, while Tokyo colonized the Korean peninsula for 35 years until 1945.
But, unlike in Germany, there has been little in the way of a national reckoning.
Emperor Hirohito, who was seen as god-like figure, died in 1989 without answering to his own responsibility over a war fought in his name, sharply contrasting with the blame heaped on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
German chancellor Angela Merkel waded into the fraught subject of wartime forgiveness during a visit to Japan in March, saying that “facing history squarely” and “generous gestures” were necessary to mend ties.
Last week, a panel set up to advise on the wording of Abe’s statement was unambiguous.
Japan “caused much harm to various countries, largely in Asia, through a reckless war,” it said.
A poll published in the Mainichi newspaper on Friday found 47 percent of those surveyed thought Japan’s involvement in WWII was “wrong” because it was an invasion.
It also said 44 percent of respondents thought Japan had apologized enough over the war, while 31 percent thought it had not.
Thirteen percent believed Japan had no reason to apologize in the first place.