After months and months of intense speculation, the word is that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will finally deliver his statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, just ahead of the anniversary of Japan’s surrender on 15 August. A panel of experts, appointed by Abe, has been picking over the wording and the big question is how far Abe – a well-known revisionist – will stray from the Murayama Statement, which has been regarded as Japan’s official position since 1995. It’s worth revisiting the key passage of that statement, which was approved by the cabinet of then Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama. Here are his words:
“During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.”
Observers are waiting to see if Abe sticks to the wording or at least the spirit of the Murayama Statement and the prime minister is under pressure from all sides: from neighbouring countries, particularly China and South Korea and from the US, which does not want Japan to heighten already fraught regional tensions with a statement that retreats from contrition. At home, those pushing for a revision to the Murayama Statement are a small but vocal minority but they do not represent the sentiments of the rest of the country.
A poll by the state broadcaster NHK last week showed that while 15 per cent of those asked did not want Abe to include the word “apology” in his statement, 42 per cent did. A recent dip in Abe’s ratings and anger over controversial security bills combined with a weakened political opposition have left the public looking for a counterweight to the revisionist point of view. Some are even looking to Emperor Akihito, a figurehead with no political role, who is seen as a unifying presence, beloved by the right and well regarded by the public in general. The constitution prevents the emperor from making outright political statements but in the nuanced world of imperial utterances, the emperor’s recent words on the war have been interpreted as a rebuke to Abe’s revisionist position. In this year’s annual New Year Thoughts, the emperor called on Japan to learn from the war as it looked to the future. In June he spoke of Japan’s remorse for its actions in the war.
The opinions of most of the Japanese public seem to have been lost in the noise surrounding the actions of the government, allowing a narrative to be written where Japan is being portrayed internationally as a country unable to come to terms with its past, now bent on remilitarising. Many will be hoping that Shinzo Abe’s statement tomorrow is one of reconciliation.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Tokyo bureau chief.