What should we make of the Abe Statement delivered last Friday on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War?
Firstly, what did Prime Minister Shinzo Abe need to achieve with the statement? Abe needed to just get through the anniversary without either an international or domestic political firestorm over matters of historical memory. His carefully crafted statement seems to have achieved that.
Domestically, Abe's statement has lifted his standing in opinion polls, which has been hard hit by the unpopular collective security legislation still before the Diet. A Yomiuri poll found 72% support for Abe upholding the Murayama & Koizumi statements, and only 20% opposed. This is striking given the often blithe assertions that the Japanese polity has shifted markedly to the right.
The White House, the British and Australian governments all welcomed the statement. Japan and Abe's standing in Southeast Asia is already strong and the statement should only help.
Official reaction from South Korea was muted, even though the statement's particular historical narrative did not explicitly address the determinants of Japan's colonisation of Korea. President Park Geun-hye said there was much to fault in the statement but her government hoped that the Japanese government would 'match with consistent and sincere actions its declaration that the view of history articulated by its previous cabinets will be upheld.' It implied a preparedness to work towards managing contentious issues. Her hostile stance towards Abe to date runs the risk that Seoul will be isolated if Abe were to effect a fuller rapprochement with Beijing. Meanwhile Washington is also frustrated with the strained relationship between two key allies.
Reaction from China was critical, but generally measured in its official sources. Abe's reputation as a nationalist and historical revisionist meant expectations for the statement were low. In upholding the landmark 1995 Murayama Statement — with its acknowledgement of colonisation and aggression, expression of deep remorse, and apology — Abe has brought some relief. Chinese criticism mainly takes the form of questioning the sincerity of Abe's commitment as well as, in Xinhua's terms, the sophistry perceived in his statement. To be accused of insincerity though at least implies that one is saying some of the right things.
The charge of insincerity raised by Abe's critics is ultimately unanswerable, except through subsequent actions over time. The paradox of Japan's history wars with its Northeast Asian neighbours is that its conduct as a nation over the last seventy years has generally been beyond reproach.
The Abe Statement made frequent use of the passive voice in Japanese, and the grammatical ease with which sentences omitting the subject can be constructed. Hence agency, namely by the wartime Japanese state or military, can be obscured at the sentence level. Abe asked that his statementt be considered in totality, and indeed if one does so then Japanese culpability and contrition is readily discernible.
Yet quibbling and pedantry in producing a narrative invites the same from critics. Much international reportage, including in The Wall Street Journal, The Korea Herald, and The Guardian, was headlined with slight variants of the judgment that Abe had 'stopped short of an apology'. DPJ Opposition leader Katsuya Okada said the key phrases uttered by Abe came in the form of citations.
Some commentary has suggested that the Emperor issued a subtle rebuke to the Prime Minister with his statement of deep remorse at the Budokan memorial service, and through the re-release of the original recording of Emperor Hirohito's broadcast announcing the surrender which was played at noon on 15 August 1945.
Did Abe go beyond the Murayama statement in some way? Length-wise, certainly. And was this to strengthen or diminish its forthright expression of atonement? Abe incorporated a stylised historical sketch of Japan's road to war and the aftermath that probably makes his statement rather less useful as an official expression of core principles than the concise Murayama document.
Did Abe cook the history books with his narrative? Somewhat, but arguably not to the damaging degree alleged by Tessa Morris-Suzuki of the ANU. Western colonialism and protectionism as extenuating context for Japan's past aggression is not very persuasive to historians, nor to regional critics. But it reinforces Abe's prescription for an open, rules-based international order, and hints that China should avoid become a challenger to the international order as Japan did in the 1930s.
Abe's expression of heartfelt gratitude for how former enemies and victims of Japan had put hatred aside to care for Japanese at war's end and facilitate reconciliation, was a largely new element. While it might be taken as a hope that persistent critics of Japan emulate such forgiveness, it reads as more than that.
Local media focused on the expression of repentance (kaigo; 悔悟) as going further than the still-weighty statement of deep remorse (tsusetsu na hansei ;痛切な反省). Perhaps through crafted ambiguity as to his own position, Abe has rendered the repentant subject as postwar Japan and its people. In doing so, he might have arrived at an outcome rather more important than simply convincing observers that he is not backsliding into historical revisionism. In effect, he gives credit to, indeed makes central to Japan's current and future national interests, the efforts of all those Japanese who have sincerely sought reconciliation since World War II. His desire for Japan to 'escape the postwar era' then seems only to be realisable through the very people and sentiments whom many on the extreme right would fault.
Abe certainly wishes that Japan might escape the cycle of demands for ever-escalating apologies, and opinion polls suggest some two-thirds of the population agree. The Abe statement noted that over 80% of Japanese were born after World War II and that future generations should be spared the need to apologise for events that occurred well before their time, though should know the truth of history. This is reasonable but clearly places the onus on the current generation of leaders to once and for all deal resolutely with Japan's historical burden.