Will Shinzo Abe say sorry for the second World War?

Speculation mounts as to how Japan’s prime minister will articulate national feelings

In a country where apologies are mumbled for countless minor transgressions, it might seem odd that Japan’s prime minister has tied himself in knots over one that really matters – over the second World War.

Japan’s newspapers have speculated all week on the words that might appear in Shinzo Abe’s statement tomorrow, the eve of the 70th anniversary of the nation’s capitulation on August 15th,1945.

Will Abe say sorry for Japan's murderous rampage across Asia? No, says the liberal-left Asahi newspaper. Yes, says NHK, Japan's staid public broadcaster. Maybe, says the giant conservative Yomiuri.

Earlier this week, NHK, apparently on a tip-off from the prime minister's office, said the statement would certainly include the phrases "feelings of deep remorse" and "colonial rule". But the words that are likely to stick in Abe's craw are "invasion" or "war of aggression". And then there's the most controversial word of all: O-wabi or "sorry".


War crimes

The prime minister’s conservative supporters say


has nothing to apologise for. They particularly despise the post-war tribunal that sat in judgment of Tokyo because they say the western powers were not held accountable for their own vast crimes in



Abe has been careful not to broadcast such views abroad, but they occasionally slip out. In 2013, he caused a row when he told parliament the definition of aggression in wartime “has yet to be established in academia or in the international community”.

In May this year, he declined to answer a straight question during Diet debate on whether Japan's decision to wage war had been "right or wrong". China and South Korea, which suffered heaviest at the hands of Japanese aggression, reacted furiously.

Abe has decided to tread carefully across this diplomatic minefield. In February, he appointed a committee of the great and the good to help him craft a statement that would walk the line between satisfying his right-wing base and not starting any diplomatic fires.

The panel included former heads of the Tokyo Stock Exchange Mitsubishi, along with career diplomats, historians and journalists from Japan's conservative and liberal newspapers. Its deputy chairman recently weighed in on the "sorrygate" controversy. "Whether or not to make an apology is the prime minister's decision," said Shinichi Kitaoka, unhelpfully.

The gold standard of Japan's mea culpas for its wartime misdeeds is considered the Murayama Statement. Named after Japan's then socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, it was issued in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war.

Heartfelt apology

Murayama’s 658 words unambiguously stated that Japan carried out a “mistaken national policy” and caused “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, through its colonial rule and aggression”. It also included a “heartfelt apology”.

Murayama (91) recalled that the statement was bitterly attacked by the right in Japan, but warmly received almost everywhere else, and wondered why Abe would want to tamper with it.

“Mr Abe reawakened an issue that was peacefully put to rest,” he said.

David McNeill

David McNeill

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