“Sorry” seems to be the hardest word to say

As another major World War II milestone anniversary approaches later this year, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be called upon to walk the tightrope of how to apologize for Japanese involvement in the war and for the colonization over parts of Asia that proceeded it.  August 15 will mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Imperial Japan and the end of the war.

At his first press conference of the new year and in the context of this milestone, Abe indicated that he would express “remorse” and would uphold past statements by Japanese governments on this issue.

He states, “The Abe Cabinet has upheld the positions of the past cabinets over history including the Murayama statement as a whole and will keep upholding them.”

The modern day impacts of how to apologize for events that only the oldest citizens have any first hand memories of may seem surprising.

As a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi who served in the Japanese war-time Cabinet, Shinzo Abe’s interaction with Japan’s past is a critical piece of his persona in Japan and in relations with its neighbours.

He is seen as one of the most conservative leaders in the post-war era.  He has played a leadership role in efforts to revise textbooks in Japan that have been criticized for soft-selling Japan’s imperial past and, in particular, for questioning the degree of coercion applied against “comfort women” during the war.

In his best-selling book, Toward a Beautiful Nation, Abe indicates that those convicted of “crimes against peace” by the Tokyo Tribunal immediately after the war are not criminals under Japanese law.  This view has been strongly criticized by neighbouring countries and academics.

The other flashpoint is the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Abe has visited several times, thus incurring the criticism of neighbouring countries while gaining the support of his conservative base.  Maintaining this conservative support is critical for his ongoing electoral success, the Yahoo News reports.

What is good politics at home can present challenges in dealings with foreign countries.  For China and South Korea, the Prime Minister’s approach has lead to a lack of trust which makes moving forward on issues more difficult.  The fact that China has also been able to play the nationalist card by allowing protestors to vandalize Japanese cars and businesses in response to Japan’s equivocation on the apology issue also makes these difficult waters to navigate.

By contrast, Germany has been able to more effectively bring closure to national hard feelings from wartime enemies by embracing and accepting its role in the war.  It may take Japan many more anniversaries to reach the same point.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE