Japan PM's 70th anniversary war speech more than just words

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offers a flower wreath for the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
PHOTO: Reuters

TOKYO - Deep remorse and heartfelt apology. They may be just words, but whether Japan's premier uses them in a war anniversary speech could dictate future relations with the country's Asian neighbours.

On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers his closely-watched remarks in a ritual that has seen previous Japanese leaders explicitly apologise for Tokyo's 20th century militarism.

But 60-year-old nationalist - criticised by some for playing down Japan's wartime record and trying to expand the role of the military - has been vague so far on his statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

And what he says could either help pacify relations with China and Korea, which were victims of Japan's brutal march across Asia, or send ties plummeting to a new low.

"The prospect for Japan's relationship with China and South Korea remains uncertain, partially due to (Abe's) view of history," said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who teaches international politics at the University of Niigata Prefecture.

Abe has made waves by quibbling over the definition of "invade" and provoked anger by downplaying Tokyo's formalised system of sex slavery in military brothels.

His 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine - seen by Japan's neighbours as a potent symbol of its militarist past - sent relations with Beijing and Seoul to their lowest point in decades, earning a rebuke from close ally Washington and aggravating simmering territorial tensions.

The visit dented Abe's bid to hold summit talks with China's President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart.

At a later meeting, the Chinese leader told Abe that he hoped "Japan will send a positive message by earnestly responding to concerns in Asian countries and facing history squarely".

'Tremendous damage'

The issue has been top news in Japan, with public broadcaster NHK reporting this week that an original draft of Abe's statement included the words "apology" and "aggression".

Those words appeared in a landmark 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, who expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" over Japan's actions.

The so-called Murayama Statement, which became a benchmark for subsequent leaders' apologies, said Japan "through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations".

Abe himself has said only that he would express remorse and follow previous prime ministerial apologies "as a whole".

But Abe has repeatedly talked of the need for what he calls a "forward-looking attitude" that concentrates on the positive role pacifist Japan has played in Asia since its surrender in 1945.

While Abe's nationalism tends to be popular on the political right, Japan's own national self-narrative has been one more of victim than colonialist aggressor largely responsible for an ill-fated Pacific conflict.

The atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which led to the Japan's surrender, stirred that sense of victimhood, said Akira Yamada, professor of modern Japanese history at Meiji University in Tokyo.

"Japan's memory of the war has long been one of a victim. The memory of perpetrator has been taken over," Yamada said.

China says more than 20 million of its citizens died as a result of Japan's invasion, occupation and atrocities, while Tokyo colonised the Korean peninsula for 35 years until 1945.

Last week, a panel set up to advise on the wording of Abe's statement was unambiguous.

Japan "caused much harm to various countries, largely in Asia, through a reckless war," it said.

"The responsibilities of the Japanese government and military leaders from the 1930s and beyond are very serious indeed."

'Rebuilding history'

There has been little in the way of a national reckoning and school textbooks make scant mention of the worst atrocities.

Emperor Hirohito, who was seen as god-like figure, died in 1989 without answering to his own responsibility over a war fought in his name, sharply contrasting with the blame heaped on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

German chancellor Angela Merkel waded into the fraught subject of wartime forgiveness during a visit to Japan in March, saying that "facing history squarely" and "generous gestures" were necessary to mend ties.

Japan's post-war US occupiers allowed Hirohito to remain on the throne, although he was forced to shed his deity status.

"The simplest way to assume responsibility might have been the emperor's abdication," said Takeo Sato, professor of history at Takushoku University.

Japan must make "painful" efforts to rebalance its wartime memories, and take the lead in forming an Asian version of the European Union to prevent another conflict, said Yamada from Meiji university.

"Rebuilding history should be painful - you cannot do it in a comfortable way."