August 14, 2015
By Takeo Hoshi
Today, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has published a short statement to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II. The statement inherited the Murayama statement on the 50th anniversary and the Koizumi statement on the 60th anniversary and expressed the remorse on Japan’s past aggression. Abe did not employ the exact words used by Murayama and Koizumi, such as “heartfelt apology” for “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries,” as many expected. But, Abe went beyond his predecessors’ statements in that he explicitly mentioned the names of the countries that suffered from the war.
Some will criticize (and have already criticized) the statement pointing out there is no fresh apology. The statement mentions the past apologies expressed by the Japanese governments but contains no explicit apology from the current administration. On the other hand, some will criticize Abe to be too apologetic and for admitting the crimes that Japan did not commit. It is impossible to satisfy all who have different but strong beliefs on what Japan did during the war and what Japan has and has not been doing in the last 70 years. As we have found out in the Japan Program project, this is a very difficult task.
I find two surprises in Abe’s statement. First is the length. The Murayama and Koizumi statements were each less than 700 words in English and less than 1,300 characters in Japanese. Abe statement has 1,664 words in English and 3,970 characters in Japanese. This may reflect the importance that Abe attaches to this statement.
The expansion of the statement is the part where he reflects on the past and discusses lessons from history rather than the forward-looking part that discusses what Japan will do in the future. This is the second surprise. I expected the statement to emphasize more forward-looking components, because expressing a credible plan for Japan to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world going forward is relatively easier than trying to present an understanding of history that everybody can agree on.
It is courageous for Abe to present an expanded view on the history going back to the period of colonization of Asia before World War II. Although the statement says “Japan took the wrong course,” some will argue Abe is trying to justify Japan’s colonization of Asian neighbors at least to a certain point of time.
The forward-looking part expresses Japan’s commitment to the peace and the prosperity of the world, mostly in accordance with the past two statements. One new resolution expressed is the one for Japan to “lead the world in making the 21st century an era in which women’s human rights are not infringed upon. The resolution is based on a historical observation made earlier in the statement of “women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” These women of course include the “comfort women” for Japan’s military, although some people will find the expression too vague.
Takeo Hoshi is the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Senior Fellow in Japanese Studies in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; a professor (by courtesy) of finance at the Graduate School of Business; and director of the Japan Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University.