PROTESTING IN JUSTICE: Protesters gather in front of the Japanese consulate in San Francisco, demanding Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to unequivocally apologize for his country's wartime crimes on April 28 (XINHUA)
Ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech to U.S. Congress on April 29, commentators remained optimistic, if guardedly so. The speech was historic in that it made Abe the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress and the eyes of the world were hence upon him. It was widely hoped that Abe might candidly address Japan's World War II (WWII) history, so as to allay fears that the two-time prime minister is attempting to pursue a neo-revisionist agenda, as suggested by changes recently made to state-approved textbooks that phrase Japanese war crimes in decidedly passive terms.
The Japan Times quoted Japan expert and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as stating everyone will be "looking to see if Mr. Abe can put history behind him." The newspaper also quoted former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama who warned the incumbent one that "If we water down, muddy or fail to touch on the problems of 'aggression' and 'colonial rule' in the Murayama Statement, then [South] Korea and China will once again distrust and worry about Japan."
Among the rank and file of U.S. representatives and among American war veterans, concerns were also voiced. Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) urged Abe to confront the issue of wartime "comfort women," sex slaves used by the Japanese army in China and South Korea, going so far as to invite one of the few surviving Korean victims, Yong Soo-lee, 87, to attend the address. Honda stated his wish for Abe to "squarely face history" during the address.
Sadly, he was to be disappointed. Abe did encouragingly make reference to Japan's acts of aggression in WWII, but in relatively indirect and even slippery terms and within a context that made their sincerity questionable.
With respect to China and South Korea, Abe stated, "Post war, we started out on our path bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse over the war." This suggests that Abe may believe the matter has been done and dusted since the end of WWII, which reflects the view of many in Abe's conservative political set that no fresh apologies are needed. However, this ignores some incendiary actions undertaken by the prime minister himself, such as visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, that are arguably in contravention of the spirit of repentance.
The prime minister went on to say, "Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard." His talk then, however, immediately dovetailed into discussing the importance of maintaining peace in Asia, "We must all the more contribute in every respect to the development of Asia. We must spare no effort in working for the peace and prosperity of the region."
He then rounded off this section of the speech, discussing the contributions of Japan to the development of the Asian and U.S. economy, particularly in the 1980s. While the aforementioned is indeed accurate, moving so quickly from vague mentions of Japan's war crime to referencing very specific instances of the country's more recent positive actions is almost surely a ploy to detract attention from the former consideration.
By contrast, his apology for U.S. casualties suffered during WWII was a little more plaintive, "My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II."
But once more, context is important. At present, Japan and the United States are seeking to strengthen military ties. In recent times, Abe's administration has sought to reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which places limits on Japan's Self-Defence Forces in terms of scale and orientation. Having long expressed a desire to expand Japanese military power, the revised Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defence Cooperation may offer the administration just the opening it needs. Abe attempted to soften the image of his country's military by referencing its role in humanitarian efforts abroad.
Although some--perhaps even a lot--of Abe's speech was undoubtedly heartfelt, underlying his nicely worded platitudes is a keen political intellect and a clear sense of purpose. Keeping this in mind, should one then take the prime minister's largely inadequate show of remorse regarding Japan's war crimes as genuine or mere political posturing?
Copyedited by Eric Daly