Written by Karl Gustafsson.

On 14 August, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered his long anticipated statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. For months, scholars and pundits have speculated about whether Abe would use words such as “apology”, aggression and regret. Would the statement reflect the revisionist views that he has repeatedly expressed or would he adopt the kind of pragmatic approach that characterized his behaviour during his first period as prime minister in 2006-2007? While numerous points can be made about Abe’s statement, I will briefly touch on the content of the statement and how it has been received and then limit myself to making a few points of importance for Sino-Japanese relations.

So, what did Abe say and how are we to make sense of it? Drawing on the Report of the Advisory Panel of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century, released on 6 August, Abe described the events in the late 1800s and the first decades of the 1900s that led to the war, admitting that: “Japan gradually transformed itself into a challenger to the new international order” and “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war”.

The following excerpt shows how the victimization of people in Japan’s neighbouring countries is dealt with: “Also in countries that fought against Japan, countless lives were lost among young people with promising futures. In China, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and elsewhere that became the battlefields, numerous innocent citizens suffered and fell victim to battles as well as hardships such as severe deprivation of food. We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured. Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering”. Whereas agency is obfuscated in the first three sentences here through the use of passive forms – “lives were lost”, “innocent citizens suffered”, women’s “honour and dignity were severely injured” – the final sentence in the quote more clearly states that “our country” inflicted such “damage and suffering”.

If agency is generally ambiguous in most descriptions of Japan’s acts during the war, it is considerably clearer in how Abe depicts Japan’s post-war achievements: “we have created a free and democratic country, abided by the rule of law, and consistently upheld that pledge never to wage a war again. While taking silent pride in the path we have walked as a peace-loving nation for as long as seventy years, we remain determined never to deviate from this steadfast course. Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war”. The final sentence in this excerpt is one of the key phrases in the statement and one of its main bones of contention. Even though Abe stated that this “position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future”, unlike those previous cabinets he did not express “feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology” himself but merely pointed out that Japan has repeatedly made such expressions, suggesting that through those previous statements Japan has already apologised enough.

Among the main Japanese newspapers, both the left-leaning Mainichi Shinbun and Asahi Shinbun criticised the statement for reasons similar to the ones outlined above. The former stated in an editorial that: “The statement does mention ’incident, aggression, war,’ but stopped short of mentioning whether Japan was involved in these acts”. The Asahi Shimbun editorial mentioned that even though all the keywords – apology, aggression, colonial rule and so on – were in the statement, Abe blurred the agency involved by making it unclear whether Japan had been responsible for aggression and colonial rule and only touched on regret and apology in an indirect fashion by stating that previous Japanese cabinets had expressed such statements.

The Chinese news outlet The Global Times expressed similar views in an editorial: “Abe avoided directly apologizing to Asian countries, but instead said ’Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war,’ while adding that ’Such a position, articulated by the previous cabinets, will remain unshakable in the future’”.

The official Chinese reaction, as evidenced in Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying’s comment, was similarly critical: “Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle”.

Both the Mainichi Shinbun and the Asahi Shinbun asked whom the statement was made for and what its purpose was. These are very good questions. A statement like this one, of course, needs to take into account numerous audiences and will therefore always be the outcome of compromise. Even so, it seems highly unlikely that Abe and his aides would have thought that the highly ambiguous statement would be appreciated by China, South Korea and the Japanese left. This makes one think that maybe these were not the main intended audiences of the statement. If Abe and his aides really thought that the statement would please China it seems that their calculations were far off.

Perhaps it was more about convincing other audiences, mainly Western ones, that Japan has already apologised sufficiently and that the failure of reconciliation in East Asia is not so much due to the insufficiencies of Japan’s expressions of contrition but rather the results of Chinese and South Korean unwillingness to recognise the previous apologies and other expressions of contrition that Japan has repeatedly made.

Karl Gustafsson is a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Karl’s doctoral dissertation received the Stockholm University Association’s award for best dissertation in the Social Sciences in 2011. His article ”Memory politics and ontological security in Sino-Japanese relations” won the Wang Gungwu Prize for best article published in Asian Studies Review in 2014. He recently published in Global Affairs, The Pacific Review. Image credit: CC by Global Panorama/Flickr