TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his remorse for all those who died as a result of Japan’s World War II actions on Friday — the eve of the 70th anniversary of his country’s surrender — but avoided explicitly repeating the apologies of his predecessors.
In a carefully phrased statement that Abe read to reporters and that was broadcast live on television, the prime minister talked about Japan's past repentance for its actions but determinedly tried to look to the "peace and prosperity" of Japan's future.
“On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences,” Abe said, even as he tried to draw a line with history.
“We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” he added.
Abe’s words will be closely scrutinized in South Korea and China, in particular, which suffered the worst of Japan’s early 20th century imperialism.
Beijing and Seoul had made it clear to Tokyo that they expected Abe to adhere to the 1995 statement, widely considered the Japanese government’s official apology for its wartime actions, in which then-prime minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression.” Junichiro Koizumi used identical wording a decade later, on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
But Abe’s statement — delivered in Japanese but also released in English — did not repeat those phrases.
Abe spoke warmly about China during questioning by reporters, saying he hoped for a summit with President Xi Jinping. Yet his reference to “comfort women” — the mainly Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial army — will fall far short of expectations.
“We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honor of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century,” he said, without specifically mentioning Japan’s role. “Upon this reflection, Japan wishes to be a country always at the side of such women’s injured hearts.”
Abe particularly stressed Japan's emergence from the war as a wealthy democracy, noting the "goodwill and assistance extended to us that transcended hatred by a truly large number of countries, such as the United States, Australia, and European nations, which Japan had fiercely fought against as enemies."
His words underline the careful balancing act Abe must perform. He is trying to appease his nationalist supporters at home, while seeking to avoid further angering China as he tries to improve relations. He also was cautious not to displease the United States, Japan's closest ally.
The statement comes at a pivotal moment for Japan and for Abe as prime minister.
Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet minister who later spent three years in American detention on suspicion of war crimes, although he was never charged. He went on to become prime minister between 1957 and 1960.
An oft-told tale describes a young Abe sitting on his grandfather’s knee as they listened to protesters outside demonstrating against Kishi’s efforts to rebuild Japan’s military. In the face of vehement protests, Kishi rammed through legislation to strengthen the alliance with the United States.
Fast forward almost six decades, and Abe is following in his beloved grandfather’s footsteps.
With Washington’s support, Abe is trying to reinterpret the American-drafted pacifist constitution, imposed on Japan after its 1945 surrender, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” For seven decades, that has been read to mean that Japanese troops can take up arms only if the country is under direct attack.
Under the new reading, the constitution would allow for the right of “collective self-defense,” enabling Japanese troops to fight overseas with their U.S. allies, although only in highly specific circumstances.
The legislation is critical for new defense cooperation guidelines agreed with the United States and will also help Japan take on a more assertive role in the face of a rising China.
The moves have been hugely controversial here, sparking the most heated citizen activism seen in decades. Protests have drawn participants ranging from high school students to pensioners.
Yoshimasa Suenobu, a veteran journalist who has known Abe and his family since childhood, said Abe was taking up the challenge to make Japan a more independent country.
“That’s why he decided to tackle security bills, although it was clear it would damage his approval ratings,” Suenobu said. “For him, security is one of the major themes as a politician, and he’s working to turn Japan into a country that can play a proactive role more. He’s a politician with ideals.”
A slew of recent polls put Abe’s approval rating below 40 percent, a far cry from the high 60s he was racking up when he took office at the end of 2012. A survey by public broadcaster NHK last week put his approval rating at 37 percent, down four points from July. The same poll found that two-thirds of respondents disapproved of Abe’s security-related bills.
Even the government’s own supporters have criticized the proposed changes. At a parliamentary hearing in June, Yasuo Hasebe, a law professor at Waseda University recommended by the ruling party, said Abe’s proposed changes were unconstitutional.
“It is improper to allow for the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, because [Article 9] permits only the right to individual self-defense,” Hasebe told the panel.
There were uncharacteristically chaotic scenes in the lower house during the debate, but it eventually passed the package of bills. They have now gone to the upper house, which the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition also controls, and are expected to be passed next month.
Among the government’s supporters is Yoshiko Sakurai, a conservative journalist who leads the newly formed National Forum to Demand the Early Enactment of the Peace Security Bills. She said this week said that Japanese needed to make the kind of “major change” envisaged in the bills. “We are facing a crisis that threatens our country’s existence unless Japan we take measures now,” she said.
While going against popular opinion by ramming the changes through could mean Abe faces more resistance in the future, there is little alternative to him.
Abe is expected to easily retain the LDP leadership in elections to be held next month, and the main opposition Democratic Party is weak. That means he is likely to remain in office, unlike during his first tenure, when a series of scandals and missteps forced him to resign in 2007 after only a year as prime minister.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.