A new opportunity over Japan's WWII past

As the 70th anniversary of the end of what Japan calls the Pacific War approaches, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must use the opportunity to lay to rest any doubts about the sincerity of Japanese guilt. This is vital for Japan's future role as a power in Asia

Shinzo Abe's opportunity
Michael Auslin
On 13 January 2015 08:49

With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II occurring this year, Japan faces a particularly trying moment. Its numerous official pronouncements of regret, remorse, and apology for the devastation it caused and the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army have failed to assuage many of its neighbors, especially South Korea and China.

Unlike in Germany, it is claimed, Japanese society has yet to fully learn about, understand, and repent for its war guilt. This heavy hand of history, while often used by its neighbors to pressure Japan politically, has hindered Tokyo’s efforts to play a more trusted role in Asia.

Last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to head off yet more criticism of Japan by foreshadowing statements he will make in advance of the August anniversary.

According to press reports, Abe will yet again express “remorse” for the events of what is known in Japan as the Pacific War and that he will uphold prior government statements. The strongest Japanese official statement was offered in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war, by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. The core of his apology read:

"During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.

"In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history."

There was no ambiguity in Murayama’s statement, as he used the Japanese phrase “owabi,” meaning apology (the Japanese version can be found here). This formal apology has been upheld by all subsequent Japanese governments, and it appears that Abe will do so, as well.

Yet as I wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal, Abe has raised doubts about his true feelings over wartime issues with remarks that have been both inapt and offensive, and people close to him have also raised doubts about their belief in Japan’s wartime guilt.

Abe must put all this behind him this year.

While expressing “remorse” is inward looking, an apology is outward directed, and Abe, who has a bold and largely coherent plan for Japan to play a larger and more beneficial role in Asia, should take this anniversary as an opportunity to once and for all signal official Japanese acceptance of the tragedy of the past.

That would allow him to focus on what he has called his “forward looking” strategy for helping ensure that Asia’s future is as peaceful as its past has been for the last seven decades.

It might also allow the Japanese people to begin a more comprehensive discussion of both their 20th century history as well as their 21st century opportunities.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here

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