Abe statement turns history’s page

Many people died not only in Japan but elsewhere in Asia as well during World War II, which ended 70 years ago. How should Japan describe this history?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered an answer in his statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. A significant point of the statement is that he incorporated expressions that conveyed feelings of apology, including: "I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished ... I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences."

In the past, many countries committed acts of aggression and imposed colonial rule, but it is rare that a statement by a national leader goes into depth concerning history. This has raised hopes that public understanding of Japan's stance on history will deepen at home and abroad.

There has been continual turmoil in national politics over historical perceptions. The nation saw a symbolic event in the summer of 1995 when the House of Representatives passed a resolution to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war's end during its plenary session.

Opposing the resolution, which stipulated "aggression" and "deep remorse" for Japan's wartime actions, many lawmakers of the Liberal Democratic Party boycotted a vote on the resolution. Such opponents included Abe, who was a first-term lawmaker at that time. A resolution is commonly adopted unanimously, but the chamber was half empty.

It is a fact that Japan caused tremendous harm to China. Shinichi Kitaoka, deputy chairman of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan's Role and the World Order in the 21st Century, said that "99 per cent of Japanese history researchers" would agree to this. Remarks perceived to deny Japan's aggression would be regarded as historical revisionism and only work to the disadvantage of politicians who make such comments.

After the discredited vote on the resolution, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama drew up his 50th anniversary statement, which featured the words aggression, colonial rule, remorse and apology. It is significant that the statement by Abe, seen as a conservative even within the LDP, used the same expressions included in the statement by Murayama, who was from the Japan Socialist Party, the predecessor of the Social Democratic Party. This move could mean that issues relating to historical perceptions have been largely settled on the national political stage.

Unlike the previous statements by Murayama and then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe's statement sums up Japan's path since the 20th century with fine balance. It also touched upon women whose "dignity and honour" were "severely injured" - an indirect reference to so-called comfort women.

The 70th anniversary statement was apparently crafted with great care after Abe examined the discussions by the advisory panel that he set up. It may help raise public awareness of modern and contemporary history.

One of the points the prime minister stressed most was "We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come ... be predestined to apologise." Abe is not the only person who holds this view.

Former German leaders, including former Chancellor Willy Brandt, said there was no need for younger generations to bear the responsibility for Germany's unprecedented brutality in the Nazi era.

China and South Korea have criticised Japan's historical perceptions and used the matter to fuel anti-Japan sentiment. To lay the "history card" to rest and achieve real reconciliation, issues over the past must come to an end with Abe's statement.