By Tim Marshall.
‘Sorry’ has been a problematic word for the Japanese over the last 70 years, and Prime Minister Abe now faces a problem as he tries to craft a speech marking the end of WW2.
The country never went through quite the soul searching of the Germans after the war, and politicians have been able to equivocate about the enormity of Japanese atrocities ever since.
Japan has apologized for its conduct dozens of times over the decades in clear language, but unlike in Germany, there has been political space for domestic opposition to these apologies. Prime Minister Abe is now feeling the pressure from the more nationalist elements in his government and support base who argue that the never ending apologies detract from Japan’s commitment to peace since 1945 and are unnecessarily humiliating.
The Japanese media reports that in a speech due to be given on August 15th Abe will include the words ‘apology’ and refer to Japanese aggression. However, an initial draft did not have the word ‘apology ‘in it. If that speech was delivered, at such a sensitive moment, it would cause an outcry across the region.
China and the two Koreas would be particularly angered, and the Americans, close allies of Japan, want the speech to lessen tension in the region, not increase it. Even if ‘apology’ is used, if he waters down, or ‘contextualizes’ Japan’s behaviour he is risking a diplomatic row putting back relations with several neighbours.
The form of words matter. Down the years, in fact in almost all years since the late 1950s, Japan has expressed ‘in a spirit of humility’ ‘heartfelt sorrow’ , ‘remorse’, ‘regret’, it has even said it ‘deeply reproaches itself’ and accepted responsibility for ‘our nation’s act’ in ‘colonial rule and aggression’
In 1993 Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa said “I myself believe it was a war of aggression, a war that was wrong,” and in 1995 there was a landmark speech by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in which he gave a “heartfelt apology”.
Apologies have been offered to individual countries and for specific acts. In 1998 for example Prime Minister Hashimoto apologised to Prime Minister Blair for the treatment of British POWs. All these expressions are frequently renewed.
However, many Japanese politicians continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in which more than 1,000 convicted war criminals are honoured. Abe has equivocated about the degree of guilt Japan bears, and put forward semantic arguments about the word ‘aggression.’
He knows that as he tries to steer Japan into a new era (and build up its armed forces) he needs to carry conservatives and liberals with him, as well as the country’s neighbours. The forthcoming speech falls into that strategy.
A professor at Sophia University, Koichi Nakano, told Reuters that although some keys words such as ‘apology’ will appear “ it seems possible, perhaps even probable, that he will significantly alter the context in which these words are used from the Murayama statement….he might thus try to satisfy both his revisionist base and critics, but he might also simply anger both.”
The speech this coming Saturday will be closely watched, and every word will count.