Abe stops short of offering fresh apology for war

Statement from Japanese prime minister will not dispel lingering resentment in Asia

Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe has expressed remorse for the second World War in an ambiguously worded statement that will do little to dispel lingering resentment over his country's actions.

The statement, marking 70 years since the war ended, was the subject of intense interest in Asia. Many suspected that Mr Abe, a nationalist, would try to water down Japan’s previous apologies.

Mr Abe said Japan had caused "tremendous suffering" in the war. "I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences," he told a live television audience.

However the prime minister stopped short of offering a fresh apology, merely saying that: “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war.”


A team of scholars, diplomats and advisers spend months crafting the statement, reflecting the potential for diplomatic upset in a region where feelings about the war still run high.

Japan's relations with Korea and China have soured since Mr Abe took office in late 2012. South Korea's president Park Geun Hye has refused to formally meet him until he does more to address historical issues.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency previously said that any statement of remorse without an apology would amount to “empty talk”.

South Korea’s ruling party, Saenuri, expressed disappointment with the statement, saying it only mentioned Japan’s past history of aggression “in a roundabout way”.

Analysts said Koreans will also certainly be angry that there was no word of Japan’s rule over their country during the first half of the 20th century. Mr Abe cited the history of Western colonisation in Asia but said Japan had “preserved its independence” and encouraged many people under colonial rule “from Asia to Africa”.

"He does a reasonable good job of taking responsibility for the war, but a very bad job of accepting Japan's colonial rule," said Andrew Gordon, a professor of history at Harvard University. "It's almost certain to further entrench Japan's relations with South Korea. "

Mr Abe’s conservative supporters remain deeply ambiguous about the war. Many believe that Japan was no more guilty than the great Western powers, who had carved up much of Asia by the 1930s. Some want an apology for the huge civilian casualties Japan sustained under US aerial bombing, which climaxed with the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The Abe administration doesn’t think there was anything wrong that Japan did in the war – they just think it was unfortunate that they lost,” said Tessa Morris Suzuki, a professor of modern Japanese history at Australian National University.

Mr Abe reluctantly inherited the Murayama Statement, issued in 1995, which carried a “heartfelt apology” and stated that Japan had engaged in a “mistaken national policy”. The prime minister’s own statement, which included references to the millions of Japanese deaths in the war, was nearly three times longer, reflecting his divided loyalties, said Mr Gordon.

“Abe is being squeezed between his own heart and his own [political] base on the one hand and the realities of international politics. He is trying to please everyone but he may end up pleasing no one.”

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo