Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed “profound grief” for his country’s aggression during World War II, and vowed to “never again repeat the devastation of war”.
“I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences,” Abe said in an address on Friday, on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and Japan’s surrender.
Abe also acknowledged that Japan “has brought lots of suffering to innocent people” including to thousands of women sexually abused by the Japanese military across the Asia-Pacific region. But he stopped short of calling them comfort women, as has been repeatedly demanded by countries like China and South Korea.
“No matter what kind of efforts we may make, the sorrows of those who lost their family members and the painful memories of those who underwent immense sufferings by the destruction of war will never be healed.”
The words that Abe chose to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, carried symbolic importance and could set future relations with countries that suffered from its brutal march across Asia.
Unlike previous prime ministers, however, Abe did not offer his personal apologies for Japan’s previous war atrocities, Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Tokyo, said.
In his speech, Abe also made reference to the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vowing that Japan supports nuclear non-proliferation, and the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons.
Abe had been criticised by some for playing down Japan’s wartime record and trying to expand the role of the military.
The issue has been top news in Japan, with public broadcaster NHK reporting this week that an original draft of Abe’s statement included the words “apology” and “aggression”, in a possible concession to China and South Korea.
“Apology” and “aggression” appeared in a landmark 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, who expressed “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” over Japan’s actions.
The so-called Murayama Statement became a benchmark for subsequent leaders’ apologies.
It said Japan “through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations”.
Abe himself has said only that he would express remorse and follow previous prime ministerial apologies “as a whole”.
But he has repeatedly talked of the need for what he calls a “forward-looking attitude” that concentrates on the positive role his pacifist country has played in Asia since its surrender in 1945.
He has made waves by quibbling over the definition of “invade” and provoked anger by downplaying Tokyo’s formalised system of sex slavery in military brothels.
A 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine – seen by Japan’s neighbours as a potent symbol of its militarist past – sent relations with China and South Korea to their lowest point in decades.
It also earned Japan a rebuke from the US and aggravating simmering territorial disputes.
While Abe’s nationalism tends to be popular on the political right, Japan’s own national self-narrative has over the decades become one more of victim of the US atomic bombings than colonialist aggressor largely responsible for an ill-fated Pacific conflict.
China says more than 20 million of its citizens died as a result of Japan’s invasion, occupation and atrocities, while Japan colonised the Korean peninsula for 35 years until 1945.
Last week, a panel set up to advise on the wording of Abe’s statement was unambiguous.
Japan “caused much harm to various countries, largely in Asia, through a reckless war”, it said.
“The responsibilities of the Japanese government and military leaders from the 1930s and beyond are very serious indeed.”
Source: Al Jazeera