There had been enormous speculation in Japan and those interested in the Land of the Rising Sun about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s formal speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of The Great Pacific War [as it was known in East and Southeast Asia].
Would he, as two predecessors on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, express a formal apology for Japan’s aggression? That was the demand, particularly of the South Koreans whose relationship with their former colonizer remains fraught despite vast cultural and economic ties critical to their own remarkable post-Korean War recovery.
One of Abe’s difficulties in making any statement, of course, is that he was speaking to two different audiences, the outside world and particularly those countries who had suffered Japanese depredations and his internal audience where he trying to reverse pacifist policies in the face of threatened Chinese and North Korean aggression. He succeeded, up to a point, although as important a touchstone as the speech was, Abe faces enormous difficulties in regard to both domestic and foreign policies.
Abe did not make a formal Japanese-style abasement. However, it was a carefully honed historical analysis in which he examined virtually all the parts of the complex relationship Tokyo had with the world before World War II and in the postwar period. He did acknowledge Japan’s culpability and puts the remorse and apologetics of the contemporary Japanese in an historical context:
Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war. In order to manifest such feelings through concrete actions, we have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbours: those in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and China, among others; and we have consistently devoted ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the region since the end of the war.
Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.
What may surprise those few Americans and other Westerners who study the speech is the extended references to colonialism, including Japanese attempts to bring parts of Asia under its rule. Not only is that a relevant issue in terms of the historical record, but many in the West including the U.S., rightly appalled by the barbarism of much of the Japanese military, do not see it as an integral part of the regional geopolitical background.
It comes as a surprise to those who do not know the area that, for the most part, Asian nationalists during the European colonial period looked to Japan – and continue even now — not only as a model but as a liberator. Japan had been, of course, the only non-European state to move quickly into the ranks of an industrial society. And among the tenets of the radicals who overtook Japan in the mid-1930s, there was a genuine feeling that they had a role to play in liberating the rest of Asia from European colonialism. Abe introduces that theme, if obliquely, in his remarks and it is certain not to please many who either do not know the history or rationalize it as the introduction of modernism [as even Karl Marx did!]
Repeatedly in his statement, Abe refers to the generosity of the former enemies – particularly the U.S. – in facilitating not only the rehabilitation of Japan in the family of nations but its surprising economic post-World War II comeback. That is certainly fitting and a contribution to what is, in its totality, an interesting review of the history of Japan’s relations with the world over the last century, that unfortunately may be ignored by too many people who ought to learn from it.