Why echo­ing their old apol­ogy isn’t enough for Ja­pan’s lead­ers

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’s state­ment on Ja­pan’s role in World War II has drawn much in­ter­est for good rea­sons.

It’s seen not only against the history of of­fi­cial post-war apolo­gies and the widely held per­cep­tion of him as a his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ist, but also against the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal at his dis­posal to help re­solve long-drawn ten­sions with neigh­bors.

Sadly, he and lead­ers of other na­tions missed an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity to do so — on the 70th an­niver­sary of the war’s end.

Ja­panese, the only peo­ple to have suf­fered nu­clear at­tack, widely ac­cept this sit­u­a­tion as atone­ment for their wartime ex­cesses.

Over seven decades, many pre­miers have ac­cepted their na­tion’s re­spon­si­bil­ity in var­i­ous ways, but none as clearly as Tomi­ichi Mu­rayama, who, on the 50th an­niver­sary, ex­pressed “heart­felt apol­ogy” and “deep re­morse” for Ja­pan’s ac­tions.

Against this touch­stone, Abe’s as­sur­ance that his pre­de­ces­sors’ words of apol­ogy and con­tri­tion are “un­shake­able” should be ac­cepted at face value.

How­ever, China and South Korea, na­tions that suf­fered the most from atroc­i­ties, were put out of sorts by his fail­ure to make a fresh apol­ogy of his own.

That Abe did not do so specif­i­cally is in­deed a dis­ap­point­ment and does him lit­tle credit.

If noth­ing else, it would have made his point that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Ja­panese should not be “pre­des­tined to apol­o­gize” more ac­cept­able.

As his­to­rian John Keay says, there is no prin­ci­ple un­der which a race of peo­ple may be held to ac­count for the con­duct of their de­ceased fore­bears.

To avoid that bur­den in per­pe­tu­ity, ac­counts must be closed. But Abe fell short in this re­spect.

Per­haps it was not easy from a per­sonal stand­point — his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, No­bo­suke Kishi, was a mem­ber of the Tojo cab­i­net dur­ing the war.

Though he made men­tion of “pro­found grief” and “im­mea­sur­able dam­age and suf­fer­ing in­flicted on in­no­cent peo­ple,” some­thing was miss­ing.

That might have prompted Ja­pan’s Em­peror Ak­i­hito, in whose fa­ther’s name the war was fought, to ex­press “deep re­morse” — a case of the na­tion’s tit­u­lar fa­ther step­ping in to cover for the short­com­ings of the po­lit­i­cal stew­ard.

Had Abe been more decisive, it would’ve been eas­ier for the world to imag­ine what sort of Ja­pan to ex­pect over the next half-cen­tury. Abe’s push — for a small in­crease in de­fense spend­ing and for his forces to come to the aid of al­lies in over­seas con­flicts — can­not be faulted against se­cu­rity threats the re­gion is fac­ing.

There’s also the worry that Amer­ica’s strate­gic com­mit­ment to Asia, in­clud­ing de­fense guar­an­tees for his na­tion, might fal­ter one day. To win wider sup­port for this new role, he should have backed his vows that Ja­pan would never again go to war with not just a more forth­right apol­ogy but also con­crete steps to work with his neigh­bors to lay history to rest once and for all. This is an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished by The Straits Times on Mon­day, Aug. 17.

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