For Japan’s leader, sorry seems to be the hardest word

Shinzo Abe returns home from US tour of which highlight was address to Congress

 

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe returns home this weekend from a United States tour with his political fortunes elevated – at least abroad. The tour highlight was a midweek speech to both US houses of Congress – the first by a Japanese leader – lauding Japan’s deepening trade and military alliance with America.

Abe has pleased American hawks by recalibrating Japan’s military stance and hiking defence spending to record levels. The build-up is aimed mostly at China, which enjoys growing sway over east Asia. The two countries have been involved in a tense standoff over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Japan’s plan to ride side-saddle with the US is complicated, however, by Abe’s take on the second World War. Conservatives in his government want to rev up patriotism and celebrate the nation’s wartime “liberation” of Asia from Western colonialism. Many resent the conclusion of the 1946-’48 Tokyo war trials, conducted under US occupation, which ordered Japan’s leaders executed for war crimes.

Last month, the government said history textbooks would dilute or expunge references to some of these war crimes, swopping the word “massacre” for “incident” in reference to the rape of Nanjing in1937 when Japanese troops murderously sacked the temporary Chinese capital. One publisher deleted photographs and testimony by Asian “comfort women” corralled into Japanese-army brothels.

Whitewashing history, questioning the verdict of the Tokyo trials and retracting Japan’s apologies could set Japan’s modern relations with China, South Korea and even the US back to zero. For that reason, the prime minister treaded carefully throughout his week-long visit.

Questioned about the war, Abe reiterated a now standard formula that Japan had feelings of “deep remorse” for what occurred. In his speech to Congress, he said Japan’s actions had brought “suffering to the peoples in Asian countries”. “I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard.” What was missing, said his critics, was the word “sorry”.

The prime minister is under pressure from his right-wing supporters to drop the mea culpa, along with expressions such as Japan’s “colonial rule” and “aggression” from the 1995 Murayama statement, Japan’s de facto apology for its wartime misdeeds. His supporters say Japan has repented enough and that China wants to keep its neighbour permanently tied up in “apology diplomacy”.

Abe has hinted he will stick by the spirit of the Murayama statement – but not the letter – when he issues his own thoughts on the war’s 70th anniversary in August. The administration of President Barack Obama badly needs Japan’s military clout. But it fears that Abe’s unrepentant nationalism could damage US interests and worsen already badly frayed ties with China and South Korea.

Abe’s speech on Wednesday was considered a trial run for this diplomatic balancing act. Predictably, it pleased his supporters while doing little to assuage his critics. China’s state-backed tabloid Global Times honed in on the missing “S” word. “The mere word ‘apologise,’ why is it so important in the eyes of the world?” it asked, rhetorically. “And yet Abe continues to refuse to spit it out, why is that?”

US Congressman Mike Honda, a fierce critic of Abe, tweeted his disappointment that the Japanese leader had ignored the “comfort women” issue. Honda sat for the speech in the public gallery with Yong-Soo Lee (87), a Korean forced to serve in Japanese military brothels. “My heart breaks for Ms Lee and her sisters, as she must now return to Korea without having received an apology,” Honda said.

Not everyone was happy at home either. Abe’s political opponents condemned new defence rules, unveiled to coincide with his trip, giving Japan’s military an expanded global role. The rules gave Japan the capacity “to defend not just its own territory, but also the United States and other partners as needed”, said US secretary of state John Kerry.

Abe was, in effect, selling Japan’s sovereignty and independence to its US military partner, said Yukio Edano, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. “Japan’s Diet (parliament) is not a subcontractor of the US Congress,” he added. Abe’s dominance of parliament is such, however, that he can ignore such criticism, at least for now.

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