Want the truth of World War Two? Don’t ask Japan.

August 18, 2015
Men dressed as Japanese imperial army soldiers march at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

Men dressed as Japanese imperial army soldiers march at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo August 15, 2015, to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War Two. REUTERS/Issei Kato

As part of the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke on Aug. 14 at a nationally televised event about the deep remorse his nation feels. While many in Japan seemed satisfied that Abe appropriately addressed the past, governments elsewhere in Asia expressed disappointment at the lack of a clear apology.

Abe chose his words carefully to ensure his explanations and condolences would not be confused for an apology. Why?

Parts of Abe’s speech were suitably humble. “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” He acknowledged that Japan inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering.”

But Abe also said, “We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” He emphasized that 80 percent of Japan’s population was born after 1945. He mentioned Japan’s civilian casualties in the specific — Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Okinawa — without touching on equally horrific events such as the Rape of Nanjing, which took 300,000 Chinese lives, and the sexual enslavement of 200,000 so-called “comfort women” throughout Asia.

Criticism of Abe’s speech from abroad was sharp. China’s Xinhua news agency called it insincere. His  “adulterated apology is far from being enough for Japan’s neighbors and the broader international community to lower their guard,” the agency said. In South Korea, which calls Aug. 15, the day Japan surrendered to the United States, Liberation Day, President Park Geun-hye said Abe’s statement “left much to be desired.”

Whenever a senior Japanese leader speaks of the war, he must parse out what will create offense because he cannot satisfy both his domestic and international audiences. In 1995, Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama focused abroad when extending his “heartfelt apology” for atrocities his country committed in World War Two.

Murayama and his party held office for only 18 months, their single period in power since 1945.

Abe’s word choices fell solidly on the domestic side, not unexpected given his drive to remilitarize Japan. The word “apology” in the context of the war is seen by conservatives in Japan, including many wealthy donors to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, as near-profanity. The same goes for specific mentions of Nanjing or Japan’s system of sexual slavery; many in the far right  still deny those events took place. Abe’s references to Japan’s own war losses was a sop to his supporters and, by Asian sensibilities, a slap in the face to those who died under Japan’s hand.

Abe is in his third stint as prime minister. His party has held power 56 of the past 60 years.

In addition to conservatives, some young people in Japan side with Abe, albeit less ideologically. They  ask how many times the nation should apologize for events they see as distant and unrelated to their modern lifestyles. An answer to them, as well as an insight into how the Chinese and Korean governments view Abe, lies in comparing Japan’s postwar actions to Germany’s.

Unlike in Germany, what happened during World War Two was never kneaded into Japan’s national consciousness.

Japanese textbooks still gloss over the war. Japan has a poor record of providing compensation to the sex slaves and care to the Korean victims of the atomic bombs. Abe appointed unapologetic revisionists to high-profile posts; he venerates the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese convicted of war crimes are enshrined. The shrine’s museum features World War Two artifacts that include a locomotive from occupied Manchuria, which is seen as an endorsement of Japan’s colonial ambitions. Abe sent a cash donation to the Yasukuni Shrine the same day as his speech. Members of his cabinet visited in person that afternoon.

Many in Asia are also acutely aware World War Two Emperor Hirohito’s son sits on the Japanese throne.

Imagine a German government beholden to Holocaust deniers, one that omits its Nazi legacy from textbooks, never apologized and compensated its war victims and annually sends its chancellor on pilgrimage to a site holy to the National Socialists, perhaps with an attached museum featuring rail cars from Dachau. All with Hitler’s son as the symbolic head of state.

That’s how many people across Asia see it.

So when a Japanese prime minister stands to speak of the Pacific War, he speaks in a type of code that includes certain words he knows will please his domestic audience and knowingly leaves out many others whose omission offend and inflame his Asian listeners. Shinzo Abe chose his words with great care — and hit his target dead, solid perfect.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Spot on article. Some in Japan (especially the conservatives) still feel that they are the superior to all other Asians which makes giving “apologies” almost unthinkable when dealing with them. You would think that two decades of stagnent economy, crushing national debt and uncompetitive innovative techniques would force them to become more realistic regarding their superiority complex. Hardly.

All of this is especially ironic given that the Japanese society rather well-known for their politeness and penchant for apologies, at least in social or business settings. Just a well coordinated show of fake, superficial and contrived etiquettes I suppose.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Do not think, that idea of “apologies” is native in any Asian cultures.
Not admitting “I was wrong” in fear of “loosing face” would be reaction in each and every country asking Japan to do that. All idea of Japan’s apologies came from US applying different cultural expectations on foreign cultural soil.

Posted by BoDim | Report as abusive

I think the problem is that public apologies are very hard for the Japanese. It’s something more formal than simply saying sorry, almost like humiliating yourself (and loss of face is a very serious matter in a still somewhat feudal culture). The preferred method is to apologize in kind or in deed, by making amends even if the guilt isn’t acknowledged

Posted by marginalcost | Report as abusive

There’s no denying Japan’s culpability in starting wars and committing atrocities. But if the present generation has to apologise for wars long past, then surely the European colonial powers should be apologising for all their depredations in Asia and Africa. And then again more recently, America for the war they waged on Iraq on contrived grounds.

Posted by joethomas57 | Report as abusive