TOKYO — As the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender approaches, the prime minister risks tipping East Asia into a new era of bad feeling if he tries to dilute Japan’s officially stated remorse for its wartime aggression, according to the author of Tokyo’s landmark apology.
Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister, has a team of academics and journalists working on the statement he will make in August to mark the anniversary, a statement that is expected to stress seven decades of peaceful, liberal democracy.
Abe will test his message Wednesday at the Asia-Africa summit in Indonesia, and then, more momentously, when he addresses Congress during a visit to Washington next week.
But the prime minister, who is widely considered to have revisionist tendencies, has been far from clear in indicating how he will treat the Murayama statement, the 1995 document that expressed remorse for the “tremendous damage” that Japan caused its neighbors “through its colonial rule and aggression” and that is considered Japan’s definitive apology.
Abe has publicly shown remorse over the war and has variously said he will uphold the statement “in general” or “in its entirety,” but he has refused to be drawn out on whether he will repeat the key words: “colonial rule and aggression.”
“China and Korea accepted my statement and things were going peacefully, but now that Mr. Abe has stirred things up again, all eyes are back on this issue,” Tomiichi Murayama, the prime minister who issued the historic 1995 document, said in an interview.
“If we recognize [our wartime actions] as a mistake and apologize, that fact will be handed down to our descendants,” said Murayama, who is 91 but still walks and bikes around Tokyo.
The former socialist prime minister said he worries that Abe will try to “water down” the 1995 statement by focusing on its mentions of Japan’s peace and prosperity and overlooking its references to the country’s pre-war “mistaken national policy.”
Indeed, briefing notes provided by Japan’s Foreign Ministry ahead of the Indonesia meeting say Abe will deliver a message that Japan is a peace-loving nation that has made a significant contribution to global stability.
Abe, the grandson of a post-war prime minister who was accused of war crimes but never charged, has made turning Japan back into a “normal” country his top priority. When he addresses a joint meeting of Congress next week, Abe is expected to focus on the 70 years of peaceful cooperation and shared values that post-war Japan and the United States have enjoyed.
But making only a cursory reference to historical issues — particularly the Japanese army’s use of Korean and Chinese women as sex slaves at “comfort stations” — will further inflame tensions in East Asia in this pivotal year. South Korean officials say they expect a full accounting for Japan’s wartime actions from Abe this year.
Mainstream historians estimate that 200,000 women were coerced into sexual slavery during World War II, but some conservative scholars and politicians here, including some close to Abe, have suggested that the actual number is much lower and that most of the women were prostitutes.
Some conservatives allied with Abe have gone so far as to suggest that Japan’s behavior during the war was no worse than that of other countries.
“Some of them say, ‘That’s something European countries did to Asian countries in the past as well, so why is only Japan to be blamed?’ ” Murayama said. “That’s just like saying, ‘Someone stole something, so what’s wrong with me stealing, too?’ It doesn’t work like that.”
South Korea and China accuse Abe of trying to whitewash Japan’s wartime record and view his efforts to allow Japan’s military to cast off some of its post-war pacifist shackles as signs of a dangerous return to the 1930s — a perception that even some of Abe’s critics dismiss.
Still, the issue continues to bedevil relations with South Korea in particular, where there are fewer than 60 former “comfort women” still living. Because of those tensions, Abe and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, have not held a formal meeting.
Abe appeared to be trying to bridge the divide somewhat on comfort women when, in an interview with The Post’s David Ignatius last month, he said his heart ached when he thought about those “who have been victimized by human trafficking.”
The statement was viewed as a positive development in Washington but was greeted with dismay in Seoul because human trafficking is almost always associated with private-sector brokers.
“People interpret this as Abe watering down this issue because it leaves up in the air the issue of responsibility,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.
There have, however, been some signs that relations between Seoul and Tokyo could be coming out of the deep freeze. They held their first high-level security talks in more than five years this month, and Seoul last week lifted a travel ban on a Japanese journalist who had been accused of defaming Park and ordered to remain in South Korea for eight months. That was seen as something of an olive branch.