TOKYO — In his highly anticipated speech Friday marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stopped short of delivering a full-throated apology for his country’s wartime actions — and ended up fully satisfying no one.
Abe acknowledged the “immeasurable damage and suffering” Japan had inflicted on the region and the postwar forbearance and generosity of its former foes, but he also insisted that future generations of Japanese must not be “predestined to apologize.”
The reaction, particularly among Japan’s neighbors, was deeply skeptical. Abe’s apology “was a diluted one at best, thus marking only a crippled start toward building trust among its neighbors,” a commentary published by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said.
The speech — the seventh such address by a Japanese prime minister on the successive 10-year anniversaries of the surrender — drew a huge and varied audience, some hoping for a new, unequivocal apology that would help ease historic tensions, some for a sign that Japan was putting the pressure to apologize behind it. In his long statement, measuring 1,664 words in English, Abe sought to offer something to all of them.
To countries in the region, he provided assurances that Japan was mindful of the great harm it had done. “We have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbors: those in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and China, among others,” he said.
To the United States and other World War II allies, including Australia and European countries, he expressed gratitude for “the goodwill and assistance extended to us that transcended hatred.”
And, crucially, for his conservative supporters at home, Abe stressed Japan’s achievements since the war and avoided being drawn into what many here see as a humiliating and endless cycle of apologies.
“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,” he said. While voicing remorse and repentance and saying that he upheld his predecessors’ apologetic statements regarding Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression,” Abe notably avoided offering one of his own.
The statement also comes at a critical juncture for Abe’s premiership. With Washington’s support, Abe has been seeking to reinterpret Japan’s U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas, albeit only in special circumstances, for the first time in seven decades. The effort has generated intense domestic opposition.
But in trying to please everyone in Friday’s once-a-decade statement, analysts said, Abe likely pleased no one. Some called the statement incoherent, while others more charitably said he was simply trying to accommodate a range of views.
“He was reacting to both domestic and international pressures on him in the lead-up to this statement,” said Jennifer Lind, a Japan expert at Dartmouth College and author of “Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics.”
“Abe recognizes that he needs to uphold the ‘Murayama consensus’ but also Abe thinks that a strong nation comes from a positive history, so you have him noting Japan’s accomplishments after the war,” Lind said, referring to the 1995 statement widely considered the Japanese government’s official apology for its wartime actions.
In that address, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression.” Junichiro Koizumi used exactly the same wording a decade later, on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
South Korea and China, which suffered the worst of Japan’s early-20th-century imperialism, had made it clear they expected Abe to adhere to those key words. But he did not, saying instead that “Japan has repeatedly expressed feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apologies for its actions during the war.”
“He squeezed every possible thing into the statement, but that blurred the focus and made me wonder what he really wanted to say,” said Harumi Arima, an independent political analyst, adding that the 25-minute statement could have been condensed into 30 seconds.
“It would have been so much simpler for them to agree to if he stuck to the key words as requested,” he said.
Japan’s neighbors were not impressed.
In a commentary carried by China’s Xinhua news agency, Tian Dongdong wrote that Abe’s “watered-down” apology would do little to eliminate Tokyo’s trust deficit in the region. “It fails to firm up — if not serving to further undercut — the credibility the Abe government needs to put Japan’s interaction with its Asian neighbors back on track,” Tian wrote.
But Abe also offered China an olive branch, noting the “tolerance” of the Chinese people in taking care of 3,000 Japanese children left behind after the war.
“This was a remarkable passage,” Lind said. “What will the Chinese do with it? If they don’t see this as a huge gesture, it will show that China is utterly disinterested in improving relations.”
Questioned by journalists after reading his statement, Abe continued to speak warmly of China and the two countries’ strong economic ties, adding that he hoped there would be an opportunity for a summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
But Abe didn’t try so hard with Seoul, which complains the loudest about Japan’s colonial legacy and has generated what is known in Tokyo as “Korea fatigue” — the idea that South Korea will never be happy, no matter what Japan says.
South Korean politicians from across the spectrum wasted no time in faulting Abe’s statement.
The ruling Saenuri Party called it “disappointing,” citing in particular its failure to take responsibility for the Japanese Imperial Army’s sexual enslavement of several hundred thousand mostly Korean and Chinese women.
Abe noted that “the dignity and honor of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century,” but his passive sentence construction avoided laying blame on Japan.
The “comfort women” issue is highly sensitive in Asia, with some Japanese conservatives contending the women were little more than prostitutes. Abe’s government, while saying it upholds a landmark 1993 apology to the women, has tried to get historical references to them watered down, including in American college textbooks.
“The statement today expressed remorse and apology in past tense, rather than in direct reference,” Kim Young-woo, a spokesman for the Saenuri Party, said, according to the Yonhap news agency. “Rather than getting caught up in wordy and ambiguous expressions, we will continue to press Japan to put in practical efforts for sincere remorse over its past and for peace.”
Indeed, Tobias Harris, a specialist in Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, said Abe’s statement was unlikely to mark the end of East Asia’s “history wars” because the factors that had undermined Japan’s relationships in the region would remain.
Those tensions will be further inflamed Saturday, when scores of politicians will head to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes almost 2.5 million Japanese who died in wars over the past 150 years. But they include 14 people convicted of class-A war crimes, including Gen. Hideki Tojo, the prime minister who authorized the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
While Abe has said he will not visit Yasukuni to mark the anniversary of the end of the war, the fact that some of his supporters will go to the shrine will not go unnoticed.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.