Why echoing old apology isn't enough

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statement on Japan's role in World War II has drawn much interest for good reasons. It's seen not only against the history of official post-war apologies and the widely-held perception of him as a historical revisionist, but also against the political capital at his disposal to help resolve long-drawn tensions with neighbours. Sadly, he and leaders of other nations missed an excellent opportunity to do so - on the 70th anniversary of the war's end.

Japanese, the only people to have suffered nuclear attack, widely accept this situation as atonement for their wartime excesses. Over seven decades, many premiers have accepted their nation's responsibility in various ways, but none as clearly as Mr Tomiichi Murayama, who, on the 50th anniversary, expressed "heartfelt apology" and "deep remorse" for Japan's actions. Against this touchstone, Mr Abe's assurance that his predecessors' words of apology and contrition are "unshakeable" should be accepted at face value.

However, China and South Korea, nations that suffered the most from atrocities, were put out of sorts by his failure to make a fresh apology of his own. That Mr Abe did not do so specifically is indeed a disappointment and does him little credit. If nothing else, it would have made his point that future generations of Japanese should not be "predestined to apologise" more acceptable. As historian John Keay says, there is no principle under which a race of people may be held to account for the conduct of their deceased forebears. To avoid that burden in perpetuity, accounts must be closed. But Mr Abe fell short in this respect.

Perhaps it was not easy from a personal standpoint - his maternal grandfather, Mr Nobosuke Kishi, was a member of the Tojo Cabinet during the war. Though he made mention of "profound grief" and "immeasurable damage and suffering inflicted on innocent people", something was missing. That might have prompted Emperor Akihito, in whose father's name the war was fought, to express "deep remorse" - a case of the nation's titular father stepping in to cover for the shortcomings of the political steward.

Had Mr Abe been more decisive, it would've been easier for the world to imagine what sort of Japan to expect over the next half-century. Mr Abe's push - for a small increase in defence spending and for his forces to come to the aid of allies in overseas conflicts - cannot be faulted against security threats the region is facing. There's also the worry that America's strategic commitment to Asia, including defence guarantees for his nation, might falter one day. To win wider support for this new role, he should have backed his vows that Japan would never again go to war with not just a more forthright apology but also concrete steps to work with his neighbours to lay history to rest once and for all.

This article was first published on Aug 17, 2015.
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