- - Sunday, August 16, 2015


Apologies are never easy, and apologizing in the name of a nation is hardest of all. Barack Obama still suffers, and no doubt always will, the approbation of many of his countrymen for his apology in Egypt early in his presidency, for what is still not clear, to the Islamic countries of the Middle East. A succession of Japanese prime ministers have put their hand to apologies for World War II. So how would Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s formal speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of The Great Pacific War, as many Asians call World War II, differ from the others?

Would he, as predecessors on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, formally express an apology for Japanese aggression? That was the demand of the South Koreans, for example, whose relationship with their former colonizers remains fraught despite the cultural and economic ties that were crucial to their remarkable recovery after the Korean War.

One of Mr. Abe’s difficulties was that he was speaking to two different audiences, the outside world, particularly those countries that had suffered Japanese depredations, and the audience in Japan, where he is trying to reverse Japanese pacifism in the face of Chinese and North Korean aggression. He succeeded, up to a point, but as important a touchstone as the speech was, Mr. Abe faces enormous difficulties.

He did not offer a formal, Japanese-style abasement, but a careful historical analysis, examining in detail the parts of the complex relationship Japan had with the world, both before World War II and in the postwar period. He acknowledged Japan’s culpability and put the usual expression of remorse and apologetics of the contemporary Japanese in the context of history.

“Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war. In order to manifest such feelings through concrete actions,” he said, “we have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbors: those in Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and China, among others; and we have consistently devoted ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the region since the end of the war. Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.”

What surprises anyone in the West who studies the speech is the extended references to colonialism, including Japanese attempts to bring parts of Asia under its rule. That’s the history. But many analysts in the West, including the United States, though appalled by the barbarism in the bygone Japanese military, do not regard colonialism as all-important.

What might surprise analysts unfamiliar with Asia was how many Asians, then and sometimes now, have looked to Japan not only as a model but as a liberator. Japan had been the only country outside Europe and the United States to move quickly into the ranks of the industrial societies. Among the radicals who overtook Japan in the 1930s, there was a belief that Japan had an important role in liberating Asia from European colonialism. Mr. Abe introduces that theme obliquely in his 70th anniversary remarks.

Mr. Abe repeatedly refers to the generosity of former enemies — particularly the United States — in not only the rehabilitation of Japan in the family of nations but its surprising post-World War II recovery. His remarks are an interesting review of the history of Japan’s relations with the world over the last century. Sad to say, the review will probably be ignored by many people who could learn from it.

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