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Shinzo Abe’s balancing act

The Japanese leader’s commemoration of World War II reflects his nation’s conflicting views

August 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Aug. 14, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a statement for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Observers wondered how closely he would hew to the Murayama statement, the apology for the war given on the 50th anniversary by Japan’s socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, which many saw as a positive step for Japan’s relations with its wartime victims.

Reactions to Abe’s statement have been largely glass half-empty. Beijing said, “The apology was a diluted one at best, thus marking only a crippled start to build trust among its neighbors.” “His sincerity has been brought again into question by his refusal to issue a fresh apology of his own,” South Korea’s Yonhap news service said. Headlines around the world announced that Abe failed to apologize.

The half-empty view correctly notes vagueness and obfuscation in Abe’s speech. He missed an opportunity to more clearly acknowledge Japan’s wartime rape of the “comfort women” 70 years ago — a practice the New York Times brought to the fore last week with its stunning reporting of horrific sexual slavery by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Such evasiveness will continue to hold today’s Japan back from being recognized as the human rights leader that it is and that the world needs it to be.

At the same time, the glass-half-empty characterization ignores the other half of a very interesting glass. It overlooks how Abe deferred to pressures to support Murayama’s interpretation of the past and ignores some remarkable ways in which Abe advanced it. The speech reflects the conflicting views about the war in Japan today and likely Abe’s own conflicting views.

A nod to Murayama

As Abe and his advisers prepared for the 70th anniversary, they faced pressure to uphold the spirit of the Murayama statement. Japan’s people broadly support the 1995 apology, and subsequent conservative governments endorsed it as national policy. On the 60th anniversary of the war’s end, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — a conservative fond of visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where numerous alleged war criminals are commemorated — based his address on the Murayama statement.

Furthermore, the statement — and historical conciliation more broadly — has the approval of Japan’s close ally the United States and of Japan’s neighbors. Beijing and Seoul urged Abe to include key language from that statement to show Japan’s sustained commitment to remembrance and contrition for the past. Thus the pragmatist in Abe could recognize good reasons not to rock the Murayama boat.

We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with the war, be predestined to apologize.

Shinzo Abe

Prime Minister, Japan

Abe’s deference to the Murayama statement was unmistakable. Critics, to be sure, are right in noting that Abe does not want the sustained campaign of introspection and atonement that Murayama, now 91, still recommends. But as Japan scholar Sheila Smith wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations, “Abe included all four phrases from the Murayama and Koizumi statements defined as markers of Abe’s intent.”

Beyond this, Abe recalled how in countries that fought Japan, innocents “suffered and fell victim to battle as well as hardships such as severe deprivation of food.” And he said that it is the duty of future Japanese generations to “squarely face history.”

He even went further than Murayama in some respects. In an extraordinary passage, Abe thanked other nations, notably including China, for their “tolerance” and welcome of Japan as a partner after the war. Smith argued that Abe did “what no prime minister has done — acknowledged with gratitude the tolerance of the very people Japan harmed most deeply in last century’s war and credited them with his nation’s postwar recovery.”

Out of the myriad wartime events Abe might have emphasized in his speech, he recalled how Chinese families took in and raised Japanese orphans. This gesture is all the more meaningful as the security competition between the two countries grows more dangerous. By recognizing not just China’s suffering but its generosity, Abe extended an olive branch. (In response, China’s state-run media promptly flamed Abe’s speech without mention of the conciliatory paragraph. Olive branch rejected.)

Restoring balance

While the speech reflects deference to the Murayama statement, it also expresses Abe’s desire to restore what is, in his mind, a much-needed balance in Japan’s historical memory. For the past 20 years, Abe and other conservatives fought a trend in which liberals and moderates encouraged greater attention to and contrition for Japan’s 20th century invasions and atrocities. Conservatives believe that a strong polity requires national pride and that such pride stems from focusing on past achievements, not transgressions. And Japan’s conservatives, worried about a China threat, believe that national strength is now more important than ever. Abe has personal as well as ideological reasons to oppose a repudiation of Japan’s past. His family legacy — notably his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi’s leadership in the government of imperial Japan — would make it personally wrenching for him to condemn Japanese imperialism and its architects.

To balance the Murayama narrative, Abe invoked the dark years of the war but also drew attention to Japan’s achievements in the 70 years since. He paid homage to Japan’s version of the greatest generation: “our parents’ and grandparents’ generations,” which reconstructed “a devastated land of sheer poverty.” Furthermore, while he recalled Japan’s invasions of its neighbors, he also described Western colonization that was menacing East Asia and mobilized Japan to fight for, in this view, its national survival. Abe referred to the suffering of Asia’s people at Japanese hands but also remembered the suffering of Japan’s “ordinary citizens” during the war, such as in bombed cities and brutal battlefields.

And as Abe sounded a Murayamaesque call for future Japanese generations to face their history, he also showed his very un-Murayama apology fatigue. He said, “We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with the war, be predestined to apologize.”

After Abe released his statement, a frustrated Murayama protested that it “did not deny [the Murayama statement] nor adhere to it.” “Fine phrases were written,” the former prime minister said, “but the statement does not say what the apology is for and what to do from now on.” Activists and commentators who urge greater contrition and neighboring governments that continue to press Tokyo on historical issues can find much to fault. But the other side of the story is the lingering influence of the Murayama statement: a powerful voice not only on the 50th anniversary but on the 70th as well.

Jennifer Lind is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. She is the author of "Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics." Follow her on Twitter: @profLind.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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