By K.V. Kesavan*
Opinion is sharply divided on the nature and outcome of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. While many informed critics have taken exception to some of the expressions Abe has used in the statement, others have welcomed it as a well thought-out message seeking a sincere reconciliation with Japan’s neighbouring countries.
A survey conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun indicates that 48% of the respondents gave a favourable opinion to Abe’s statement. It is also important to note that both China and South Korea who were expected to be the most vociferous critics of Abe have reacted in a subdued way. It is reported that Abe is likely to visit China in the first week of September when Beijing will commemorate its Second World War victory over Japan. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a vehement critic of Japan, has also reacted to Abe’s statement rather calmly and even given a call for both Japan and South Korea to look forward to closer bilateral understanding. Similarly, one should note the positive responses from the US, Australia and many ASEAN countries.
There is no doubt that the statement is one of the most closely scrutinised of Abe’s public pronouncements so far. There is also little doubt that Abe had carefully crafted each and every line of his statement because of the impact it could produce particularly in China and South Korea. It is also clear that he drew many of his ideas from the report submitted earlier by his advisory committee consisting of well-known experts business leaders and scholars.
Considering the timing of the statement as well as Japan’s present relations with some of the neighbouring countries, Abe could not afford to make any statement other than a well-calibrated, thoughtful and conciliatory one that would appear to make a sincere admission of Japan’s mistakes without at the same time making a major dilution of his deeply held positions or alienating his domestic power base. For instance, Abe as a young law-maker is reported to have had serious reservations on Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s statement of 1995. It is also reported that in 2005 when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his 60th year war anniversary statement, Abe, even as the Party’s Secretary General, had his scepticism.
As political heat started gaining momentum after his advent as prime minister in 2012 for the second time, he had to address this issue squarely. In 2013, he took serious exception to the use of the word ‘aggression’ to describe Japan’s pre-war policies in Asia. He argued that the definition of what constituted aggression “has yet to be established in academia or in the international community.” Both China and South Korea strongly objected to Abe’s statement and they were further enraged in December 2013 by Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine. Given these basic differences in their respective perceptions of history, there was a great deal of concern in the air on how Abe would use his 70th anniversary address to bring about reconciliation with these countries.
Pressures on Abe
But beginning from 2015 onwards, Abe came under severe political and economic pressures that forced him to seek a rather cautious and conciliatory course on the question of his World War speech. First, ever since July 2014 when Abe decided to reinterpret the Constitution on the issue of exercising collective self-defence, he has been engaged in steering a series of security related bills in the Diet to a successful conclusion. He has got an exceptional extension of the Diet session for that purpose too, so that the bills could be passed latest before the end of September. But what has caused him considerable worry is that in various opinion polls, his approval ratings have sharply fallen even below 40%. It is definitely a matter of concern for a leader who started with above 75% approval ratings two years ago. Second, Abe is also set to face party presidential election in September. Though he is confident of getting re-elected for one more term, any slip in a touchy subject like the World War II statement could cause unexpected and avoidable public controversy. Third, any decision taken by Abe on his statement should also give adequate consideration to the position of his major political ally Komeito which has urged Abe to properly reflect on the views of both Murayama and Koizumi by including such expressions like aggression, colonial rule, apology and remorse. The coalition partner also desired that the new statement should be made in the name of the cabinet.
It is clear from the above account that Abe’s new statement has to address multiple audiences seeking to balance their interests. The final statement traces Japan’s rise as a modern military power under compelling circumstances that ultimately led to its downfall. In that process it tries to place Japanese imperialism along with western imperialism in Asia. It talks about Japan’s pledge not to resort again to aggression, war, and colonial rule. It refers to such expressions like remorse, repentance and heartfelt apology rendered by successive Japanese governments, and assures that these pledges of the previous governments “will remain unshakable into the future.” Though these are strong assurances, many in East Asia would still have liked Abe himself to express those sentiments more categorically rather than referring to the previous cabinets. Abe’s mention of the “dignity and honour of women” is well-taken, but many feel that a more pointed reference to the issue of comfort women would have gone a long way in assuaging the victims of this cruelty.
Finally, another key point Abe has raised is about the time limit for the Japanese people to keep on offering apology. With 80% of the population belonging to post-war generations, Abe argues, “we must not let our children, grand children and even further generations to come….be pre-destined to apologise.” In other words, Abe believes that having been a responsible democracy with deep commitments to respect for freedom, rule of law and human rights, the time has come for the Japanese people to break with the practice of apologising for ever. Many would like to support his contention. But this can happen only if Japan fully embraces history and develops a deep understanding with both China and South Korea on their mutual historical perceptions
*Prof. K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi