There were bows and “banzai” chants at the Yasukuni Shrine as politicians, veterans, and nationalists paid their respect to the over two million Japanese who died in World War Two. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.
On a table at a refreshment stand in the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine, Tadashi Shimomura set up two framed photographs. In front of them, he placed a bottle of ice-cold lemonade as an offering.
One of the sepia-tinted images was of a unit of young pilots with their commanding officers that was taken in Manchuria in February 1945. The second was of Hidemi Sato, the uncle of one of his friends who had just turned 18 when he died in a kamikaze attack against the US fleet off the southern islands of Okinawa.
“There were 15 pilots in his unit; nine of them died in a kamikaze attack on March 27, while the rest were killed in a second attack onApril 3,” said Shimomura, the President of a food processing company in Tokyo. Sato was in the second assault.
“I come here every month to remember their sacrifice, but I always make sure I come on August 15,” he said. “The anniversary of the end of the war is an important date for me and all Japanese people and I think it is necessary for us to remember what happened.
“The peace that we enjoy today is because of the sacrifices of men like Sato.”
70 years after surrender
Japan on Saturday marked 70 years since the nation’s surrender, with Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe making speeches at a ceremony at the Nippon Budokan Hall attended by some 5,000 relatives of victims of the war.
“We pledge never to repeat the horrors of war, to carve out the future of this country for the sake of the generation that is alive at this moment and for the generations of tomorrow,” Abe said.
The emperor expressed his own “deep remorse” over the war in his address, saying, “Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated.”
After the speeches, a minute’s silence was observed at 12 o’clock, the precise time that a recorded address by the Emperor Hirohito, the present emperor’s father, was played over the radio in August 1945 calling on the people to “endure the unendurable” and accept the nation’s surrender.
Silence at Yasukuni
The same minute’s silence brought visitors to the nearby Yasukuni Shrine to a halt. Thousands of people queuing to pay their respects in front of the main “haiden,” or hall of worship, bowed their heads.
But prominent among the veterans leaning on their canes and the elderly women dressed entirely in black come to pay their respects, were the knots of various right-wing groups.
Many wore quasi-uniforms of coveralls with rising sun symbols and combat boots. At the head of each group, a standard bearer held the Japanese flag aloft. After the minute’s silence, the factions’ leaders took it in turn to give three “banzai” shouts.
Hiromichi Moteki, Secretary General of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, said he was “disappointed” by the tone of the statement by the prime minister on the eve of the anniversary in which he apologized for the “immeasurable damage and suffering” the nation’s military caused before and during the war.
“We have no reason to apologize to other nations in Asia that became independent because the Japanese military took on the European colonial powers,” Moteki told DW. “We helped them achieve freedom and they should be thanking us.”
Like many nationalists, Moteki believes that Japan invaded and occupied parts of the Pacific and mainland Asia to create a “co-prosperity sphere” and that it was liberating its neighbours from colonialism.
Equally, Moteki and many on the right in Japan are convinced that China triggered the Sino-Japanese war in August 1937, there was no massacre of civilians in Nanking four months later, the United States provoked Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and “comfort women” were not coerced across Asia and the Pacific to serve as prostitutes for Japan’s soldiers.
“To make Japan apologize again and again is racial discrimination and the self-criticism we see in some parts of Japanese society today is the result of the war-guilt that was forced on us by the Allied powers after the war,” he said.
China and both North and South Korea criticized the address by Abe on Friday for failing to offer a personal apology to the victims of the war and “lacking sincerity.” Media in China and South Korea were swift to condemn visits to Yasukuni Shrine on Saturday by three ministers in Abe’s cabinet, with a further 100 politicians also paying their respects at the shrine.
Abe did not visit Yasukuni in person, but sent an aide with a ritual offering in his stead.
Japan: Why Abe’s ‘Utmost Grief’ Won’t Ease Regional Tensions
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s failure to express a clear “heartfelt apology” for his country’s actions during World War II reflects a missed opportunity to ease tensions that have haunted the region for decades, experts say.
It would have been an ideal occasion for the Japanese PM to defuse tensions over his country’s wartime past, which still haunts ties with neighbouring China and South Korea. But despite upholding past apologies from his predecessors for the country’s actions in World War II, the nationalist premier failed again to issue a personal “heartfelt apology.”
In a televised address on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, Abe expressed “utmost grief” over the loss of life in the global conflict and acknowledged his country’s military had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” on innocent people.
But he added that future generations should not have to apologize for Tokyo’s wartime record. “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 for it,” Abe said. The Japanese leader also stressed his country’s desire to move forward, while taking “the lessons of history deeply into our hearts.”
‘Deliberately indirect fashion’
But what does this mean? “Looking closely at the premier’s statement, it can be seen that Abe himself is not making an apology,” said James Brown, a Japan expert at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo.
“The PM is instead simply noting that several Japanese leaders have made apologies in the past and that he is not going to contradict them directly. He confirms this as being his stance by also stating that ‘Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future,'” Brown told DW.
In the run-up to the speech, Abe has been expected to follow the path of past prime ministers in a bid to ease tensions with neighbouring countries. In fact, China and South Korea had called on the PM to stick to a 1995 statement by then Japanese Premier Tomiichi Murayama, which became a benchmark for subsequent apologies.
Back then, Murayama had acknowledged that Japan “through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.” He expressed “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s wartime actions.
But while Abe’s latest speech did include key terms such as “colonial rule” and “aggression,” analyst Brown explains that, in reality, they were used in a “deliberately indirect fashion.”
“Abe might have kept to the letter of the Murayama statement, but certainly not to its spirit,” said the expert.
The Japanese leader’s statement was closely watched by Japan’s neighbours, where resentment still runs high over the invasion, occupation and atrocities carried out by the Japanese military before and during WWII.
China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, criticized the speech as “watered-down” and a “retrogression” from past apologies, thus marking only “a crippled start to build trust among its neighbours.”
“The adulterated apology is far from being enough for Japan’s neighbours and the broader international community to lower their guard,” Xinhua wrote in a commentary.
“Abe trod a fine line with linguistic tricks, attempting to please his right-wing base on the one hand and avoid further damage in Japan’s ties with its neighbours on the other. By adding that it is unnecessary for Japan’s future generations to keep apologizing, Abe seemed to say that his once-for-all apology can close the page of history,” China’s official news agency added.
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se called on Japan to take “sincere action” over the history issue, according to Yonhap news agency. Yun said his government is scrutinizing the new statement and it will soon issue its formal position.
“Abe missed the opportunity to take the moral high ground and make clear the wrongs undertaken by Japan’s Imperialist forces,” said Shihoko Goto, an East Asia analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. The expert explained that just as Germany today makes clear the horrors of Nazism, Abe, too, could have made clear the aggressions of Imperialist Japan, and at the same time making clear that Japan today is not that of the past.
The wording of Abe’s WWII anniversary speech had been the subject of debate since the beginning of the year, given that the PM has been associated with a number of revisionist claims about Japan’s wartime and imperial aggression, including statements that mitigate the Japanese state’s role in recruiting so-called “comfort women.”
The term is used to refer to an estimated 100,000 women from conquered territories who were coerced or tricked into becoming sex slaves for the Japanese military.
Many conservatives in Japan still deny that the women were kidnapped and insist that they were merely well-paid prostitutes. They also claim that the women were employed by brokers, so the military and the Japanese government bear no responsibility for their treatment. The issue has strained Japan’s relations with South Korea and China time and again.
Ties between the neighbors have also been affected by visits paid by Japanese politicians, including Abe, to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead, including 14 convicted “Class A” war criminals.
This is why Kristin Surak, a senior lecturer of Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London, argues that not everyone had expected Abe to issue an apology. “In most of his public statements to date, the PM has been evasive, referring to prior apologies rather than offering direct statements of regret,” Surak told DW.
For instance, in a landmark address to a joint session of the US Congress this April, Abe acknowledged that Japan’s actions had “brought suffering” to the peoples of other parts of Asia but stopped short of issuing an unequivocal apology.
Moreover, analyst Surak pointed out that Abe – who has a reputation of being an unabashed nationalist – serves as an advisor to the ultranationalist grouping Nippon Kaigi, which has a strong revisionist platform, asserting, for example, that standard accounts of the Nanjing Massacre are grossly exaggerated or fabricated.
Expanding the military’s role
The premier’s statements come as he pushes for a more robust defence policy. Despite growing public discontent, the PM – whose approval ratings have dropped to 40 percent – has been seeking to revise Japan’s security policy and reinterpret the country’s US-drafted 1947 pacifist constitution in a bid to expand the role of the East Asian nation’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF).
Abe believes the constitutional restraints imposed on the armed forces have become a hindrance to deeper military collaboration with allies such as the United States. To justify his policy aims, Abe has also pointed to China’s maritime advance abroad and recent tensions over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both nations.
As a result, Japan’s lower house of parliament recently passed security bills that for the first time since World War II could allow the country’s armed forces to fight alongside allied nations in case of an attack.
Goto is therefore of the view that Abe’s speech ultimately had a twofold purpose: “Firstly, to address the concerns of Japanese voters wary of Abe’s efforts to reinterpret the existing constitution and push for collective self defence. Secondly, to improve relations with Korea and China by addressing historical grievances.”
But while the US and several Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam welcomed Japan’s decision to revise defence laws, China and South Korea have remained highly critical of Abe’s attempts at revising Japan’s defence policy.
This is why analysts believe that a key factor behind Abe’s carefully crafted speech on Friday might have been US pressure. “The US is very much concerned about keeping regional tensions in check as the Japanese military expands. This is an expansion that the US supports, but it has contributed to heightened tensions within the region, which the US will want to dissipate,” Surak said.
This view is shared by Temple University’s Brown, who added that there would possibly have been no statement whatsoever had Abe been free to do what he wished. “Washington regards tensions over history as a cause of insecurity in North East Asia, and the US government would urgently like historical problems between Japan and South Korea to be overcome so that closer security relations can develop between its two major allies in the region,” the expert said.
Reconciliatory efforts needed
One of the complaints frequently heard within Japan is that there is no apology that a Japanese leader could make that would fully satisfy China and Korea.
And given that there are groups on both the Japanese side and that of its neighbours who are not actually interested in settling these historical issues, one might argue that there was only a very slight possibility, if any, of Abe’s statement conclusively putting an end to East Asia’s tensions over history.
Given these circumstances, the dispute over the wartime past is likely to continue, particularly as nationalist claims have become a tool in the region for distracting populaces from harder political debates.
As analyst Surak pointed out: “Historical memory concerning colonization and war has risen to the fore in the region since the end of the Cold War. Given its politicization, reconciliatory efforts from all sides will be needed to work through the issues involved.”
OPINION: Time goes by, but not guilt
Despite acknowledging Japan’s wartime aggression, Shinzo Abe did not give a reconciliation speech. But that was not to be expected from the nationalist PM, says DW’s Alexander Freund.
In a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally managed to express critical words about his country’s wartime past. He spoke of “deep remorse” and “regret,” and admitted that the nation’s military had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” to the peoples of Asia.
These were the key words and messages that Abe needed to deliver. This was important. Abe could no longer pull off another tactic, and he had to confess to Japan’s historic guilt. But appearances are deceptive. Abe’s speech was not a great reconciliation speech, but rather a very pragmatic one pointing to the future.
Abe remained extremely vague when addressing several sensitive issues. He did not issue an apology for the tens of thousands of “comfort women” who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. Instead, Abe spoke in general terms about the suffering of thousands of women far away from the front lines.
Both victim and perpetrator
Trust is not built upon such vague formulations, even though the Japanese PM may be genuinely interested in establishing peaceful and prosperous relationships with his country’s neighbours. Accordingly, the speech did not go down well with the Koreans and Chinese.
While Abe’s speech may not have lived up to expectations, it certainly was carefully crafted. It placed Japan’s aggression in a historic context by bringing to mind the less laudable colonial policy of Western nations.
It is as if the PM had wanted to tell neighbouring countries: “Look, Japan wasn’t the only one doing this. Other countries had similarly aggressive policies.” Abe spoke of the “immeasurable damage and suffering” caused by Japan, but also referred to the high number of Japanese casualties and reminded the world that Japan has been the only victim of a nuclear attack to this day.
Japan was not only a victim, but also perpetrator. Abe was also grateful for the support provided by other nations which helped bring the country out of the ruins of World War II. While taking “the lessons of history deeply into our hearts,” the Japanese leader also pointed to his country’s desire to move forward and play a key role as a regional power, say, in the fight against nuclear proliferation.
A missed opportunity
But the speech also gave an insight into what the Japanese leader stands for. He knows that the past casts a long shadow, the suffering has not been forgotten and that mistrust is as present as ever before. And yet, Abe has promised to restore Japan’s strength, both economically as well as geopolitically. He wants to deepen security ties with the US in an attempt to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
But for this, he first needs to boost Japan’s economy. And he also will have to revise the country’s US-drafted postwar pacifist constitution despite growing public discontent in Japan.
While Abe missed a historic opportunity for reconciliation, one also has to admit that the present conditions to achieve this are very bad indeed. Nationalist tendencies are growing stronger not only in Tokyo, but also in Beijing and Seoul, where South Korean President Park Geun-hye is seeking to clearly distance her country from that of the former occupier.
And North Korea’s regime is not capable of surviving without resorting to an extreme kind of nationalism which sees the US and Japan as the country’s main adversaries. Nationalism is also on the rise in China as can be seen in Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance in its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
It’s even possible that Beijing will keep on stoking nationalist sentiments as long as the national economy continues on its downward path. After all, it is a combination of economic growth and nationalism which has legitimized the political leadership in Beijing thus far. In this context, a visible effort to tackle foreign issues could also enable Chinese leaders to put critical internal issues on the back burner.
Nonetheless, given that Japan bears the historic responsibility, Tokyo must be the first to take a step towards reconciliation and re-building trust. Unfortunately, the country has wasted valuable time yet again. Now is the time to act. While reconciliation can help heal the wounds, the scars will remain. Time may go by, but guilt doesn’t.