TOKYO — Japan’s conservative premier said Tuesday that his government will uphold Tokyo’s official apology for the damage and suffering it inflicted on its neighbors during World War II.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assertion comes amid intense speculation in Tokyo — and, to a lesser extent, in Washington — about how he will mark the 70th anniversary in August of the end of the war.
Abe has made it his mission to return Japan to a more “normal” footing, repeatedly signaling that he thinks his country has apologized enough for its wartime actions. He also has indicated that he will seek to revise the largely U.S.-drafted constitution, which renounced Japan’s right to possess the means to wage war, to “match a new era.”
Under questioning in the Diet, the country’s parliament, Abe said his cabinet “upholds the position of previous cabinets regarding recognition of history as a whole,” including the Murayama statement delivered 20 years ago on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
In that statement, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said that after “following a mistaken national policy,” Japan had, “through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.”
“In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.”
Abe said his 70th anniversary statement will be premised on Murayama’s and on a similar statement made 10 years later by Junichiro Koizumi.
“As for what will be in my statement, it will be self-examination of Japan during the last World War, the steps we have taken to become a peaceful country, what contribution Japan will make to the Asia-Pacific region and the world from now on, and what Japan will be like in the next 80, 90 and 100 years,” Abe said Tuesday under questioning from the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
“We will bring together our wisdom to think of what we can disseminate to the world and include it in the new statement,” he said.
However, his position is far from consistent. Just three weeks ago, on a local TV show, he said he wanted his statement to reflect “how the Abe government considers the matter,” rather than just using “the wording we have repeated.”
In particular, he said he wanted to avoid “bits and pieces of argument over whether the previous wording was used or new wording was added.” The words “colonial rule and aggression” are particularly contentious in conservative circles here.
Abe is forming a committee of advisers to work on the statement and consider what role Japan should play in the 21st century. A speech he made in the Australian capital of Canberra last year, in which he expressed remorse but did not offer an apology, is said to be the model for his August statement.
His aides are keeping Washington apprised of his thinking as they begin drafting the statement, said people involved in the discussions. He will visit Washington in late April for a meeting with President Obama and is seeking to address the joint houses of Congress, according to local reports.
Abe, the grandson of postwar Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was suspected of war crimes but never indicted, clearly thinks that Japan has paid its dues for its wartime aggression. He has indicated more overtly than ever that he wants to revise the postwar constitution, which says that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.”
In a parliamentary session Monday, Abe said amending this pacifist clause in the constitution was one of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s highest priorities.
“I want to deepen public discussion about the way the constitution should be, to match a new era,” he said. “And based on such deepening of discussion, I will firmly and steadily work to revise the constitution.”
An ally of the prime minister previously said that Abe would try to revise the document at the end of next year, if the LDP wins a two-thirds majority in the upper house of the Diet. Together with its junior coalition partner, the pacifist Komeito, the LDP already has a two-thirds majority in the lower house.
If both chambers approve the revision, it would be put to the public in a referendum. But it is far from certain that the changes would win majority support. The populace remains wedded to — and proud of — its 70 years of pacifism.
“Abe’s impulse is going to be to move as far and as fast as he can on revision and reinterpretation,” said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But how much opportunity is there for Abe to move?”
Polls show that the public remains bitterly opposed to revising the charter. A survey by NHK, the public broadcaster, this month found that only a quarter of respondents thought Japan’s Self-Defense Forces should be allowed to go overseas to rescue Japanese people, while a third wanted Tokyo to ban such actions, and 36 percent were undecided.
But the recent hostage crisis — in which two Japanese nationals held by the extremist Islamic State were beheaded — has created an opportunity for Abe that did not exist before. The prime minister has said that the crisis showed that the Self-Defense Forces needed to be freed of postwar constraints to protect Japanese people abroad.
Political scientists say Abe’s advisers are testing the waters to see how far the government can exploit the public outrage over the brutal killing of their compatriots.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.