TOKYO — In his highly anticipated speech Friday marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stopped short of delivering a full-throated apology for his country’s wartime actions — and ended up fully satisfying no one.
Abe showed significant remorse in his statement — saying that his “heart is rent with the utmost grief” when he thinks about the “immeasurable damage and suffering” Japan inflicted on the region — and said he was grateful for the postwar forbearance and generosity of his country’s former foes. But he also insisted that future generations of Japanese must not be “predestined to apologize” for a war they had nothing to do with.
The reaction among Japan’s neighbors was deeply skeptical. Abe’s apology “was a diluted one at best, thus marking only a crippled start toward building trust among its neighbors,” said a commentary published by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. In South Korea, politicians called the apology “disappointing.”
The long statement carried on a tradition that began on the 50th anniversary in 1995, when then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression.” Friday’s speech reflected Abe’s attempts to listen to calls to uphold that sentiment and ease historic tensions. But he also responded to calls to end what many here view as an endless cycle of humiliating apologies.
To countries in the region, Abe provided assurances that Japan was mindful of the great harm it had done. “We have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbors: those in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and China, among others,” he said.
To the United States and its World War II allies, including Australia and European countries, he expressed gratitude for “the goodwill and assistance extended to us that transcended hatred.”
And, crucially, for his conservative supporters at home, Abe tried to put Japan’s history behind it. This comes as the prime minister moves closer to his highly controversial goal of reinterpreting Japan’s U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas, albeit only in special circumstances, for the first time in seven decades.
“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 said. While voicing remorse and repentance and saying that he upheld his predecessors’ apologetic statements regarding Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression,” Abe notably avoided offering one of his own.
But in trying to please everyone, he probably satisfied no one, said Gerald L. Curtis, a highly respected Japan expert at Columbia University.
“Not his right-wing base, not the political opposition, not the Chinese or the Koreans, and if the U.S. has any qualms about it, it is keeping it to itself,” Curtis said. “But he invoked the four sacred words — aggression, colonialism, apology, repentance, even if not in first-person declaratory sentences — and he did not say anything so outrageous as to make an angry response unavoidable.”
South Korea and China, which suffered the worst of Japan’s early-20th-century imperialism, had made it clear they expected Abe to adhere to the key words from the Murayama statement — “heartfelt apology” — as Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister on the 60th anniversary, did in 2005.
Japan’s neighbors were not impressed with Abe’s attempts to have it both ways.
In the Xinhua commentary, writer Tian Dongdong noted that Abe’s “watered-down” apology would do little to eliminate Tokyo’s trust deficit in the region. “It fails to firm up — if not serving to further undercut — the credibility the Abe government needs to put Japan’s interaction with its Asian neighbors back on track,” Tian wrote.
South Korean politicians from across the spectrum wasted no time in faulting Abe’s statement, either.
The ruling Saenuri Party called it “disappointing,” citing in particular the statement’s failure to take responsibility for the Japanese imperial army’s sexual enslavement of several hundred thousand mostly Korean and Chinese women.
Abe noted that “the dignity and honor of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century,” but his passive sentence construction avoided laying blame on Japan.
The “comfort women” issue is highly sensitive in Asia, with some Japanese conservatives contending the women were little more than prostitutes. Abe’s government, while saying it upholds a landmark 1993 apology to the women, has tried to get related historical references watered down, including in U.S. college textbooks.
“The statement today expressed remorse and apology in past tense, rather than in direct reference,” said Kim Young-woo, a spokesman for the Saenuri Party, according to the Yonhap News Agency. “Rather than getting caught up in wordy and ambiguous expressions, we will continue to press Japan to put in practical efforts for sincere remorse over its past and for peace.”
Harumi Arima, an independent political analyst, said Abe’s 25-minute statement could have been condensed into 30 seconds.
“It would have been so much simpler for them to agree to if he stuck to the key words as requested,” he said. “He squeezed every possible thing into the statement, but that blurred the focus and made me wonder what he really wanted to say.”
But Jennifer Lind, a Japan expert at Dartmouth College and author of “Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics,” said Abe clearly appeared to be trying to accommodate a range of views.
“He was reacting to both domestic and international pressures on him in the lead-up to this statement,” she said. “Abe recognizes that he needs to uphold the ‘Murayama consensus.’ But also Abe thinks that a strong nation comes from a positive history, so you have him noting Japan’s accomplishments after the war.”
Indeed, Lind noted that the prime minister offered China an olive branch by referencing the “tolerance” shown by the Chinese people in taking care of 3,000 Japanese children left behind after the war.
“This was a remarkable passage,” Lind said. “What will the Chinese do with it? If they don’t see this as a huge gesture, it will show that China is utterly disinterested in improving relations.”
Questioned by journalists after reading his statement, Abe continued to speak warmly of China and the two countries’ strong economic ties, adding that he hoped there would be an opportunity for a summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
But Abe didn’t try so hard with Seoul, which complains the loudest about Japan’s colonial legacy and has generated what is known in Tokyo as “Korea fatigue” — the idea that South Korea will never be happy, no matter what Japan says.
Tobias Harris, a specialist in Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, said Abe’s statement is unlikely to mark the end of East Asia’s “history wars” because the factors that had undermined Japan’s relationships in the region will remain.
Those tensions will be further inflamed Saturday, when scores of politicians head to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes almost 2.5 million Japanese war dead. They include 14 people convicted of Class A war crimes; one is Gen. Hideki Tojo, the prime minister who authorized the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although Abe has said he will not visit Yasukuni to mark this year’s anniversary, the fact that some of his supporters will go to the shrine will not go unnoticed.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech Friday as the seventh such address by a Japanese prime minister on successive 10-year anniversaries of Japan’s World War II surrender. It was the third.