The Abe Statement on Japan’s War Guilt: Regional and Historical Implications

Author: J. Berkshire Miller

In August, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make a critical statement to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The long anticipated statement has been debated and crafted carefully over the past year by the Abe administration and will be influenced by the recommendations from an independent and bi-partisan panel of experts in Japan. In the end, however, the choice of what is – and more importantly, what is not – included in the statement will depend on decisions Abe makes. He will have to balance his own reservations about the traditional narrative of Japan’s war guilt against the considerable pressures, both foreign and domestic, to strongly adhere to previous statements made by former Japanese leaders. 

The Abe Statement will be scrutinized because of its likely direct impact on Japan’s relations with its regional neighboursThe Abe Statement will be scrutinized because of its likely direct impact on Japan’s relations with its regional neighbours, especially China and South Korea. Both Seoul and Beijing have essentially pre-conditioned stronger relations with Tokyo on Abe’s willingness to adopt a more contrite stance on historical issues. This is particularly true in the case of Japan-South Korea relations, which have been paralyzed since Abe took office in late 2012 due to Seoul’s perception of Abe and his Cabinet as historical revisionists. This stalemate has plunged Tokyo-Seoul ties to their present nadir, with an abnormal lack of high-level bilateral meetings. For these reasons, the Abe Statement is critical not just from a historical perspective but also for geopolitical relations in Northeast Asia. 

Historical Precedent and Abe’s Personal Beliefs

The Abe Statement will be closely watched by a number of countries, but will be followed most closely by China, South Korea and North Korea – the three countries in East Asia most impacted by Japan’s war time actions. While the Abe administration would like to frame this statement as a “forward looking” document, it will be challenging to build the foundation for stronger regionalism in Northeast Asia without addressing Tokyo’s wartime role in concrete terms. In this sense, Abe’s remarks will be held up against three key statements made by former Japanese officials: the Kono Statement (1993), the Murayama Statement (1995) and the Koizumi Statement (2005).

In the Kono Statement, made in 1993, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono said that the “Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.” The Kono Statement may be the most controversial to date because it revealed the cleavages between conservatives and liberal political views in Japan. An example of this divide was last year’s review of the Kono Statement evidence, through which Japanese conservatives who are aligned with Abe railed against the alleged faulty and disingenuous evidence used to bolster the statement. This review was coupled with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) unrelenting criticism of the well-respected liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun for publishing unverified stories allegedly used as facts to support Kono’s assertion in 1993. Meanwhile, several members from the opposition parties and liberals within the LDP have pushed the Abe Administration to maintain the integrity of the Kono Statement. 

The Murayama Statement, made in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, noted that Japan’s engagement in the war was “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.” While apologizing, Murayama also outlined the “irrefutable facts of history” and stressed Japan’s need to “eliminate self-righteous nationalism.”

The Murayama Statement, while applying to Japan’s role in the war more broadly, was especially well received at the time by China, South Korea, and countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific that were most affected by Japan’s actions during the conflict. It complemented the Kono Statement with a more comprehensive apology that addressed other issues beyond the comfort women. The same reaction, however, was not universally shared in Japan, with several conservative politicians feeling betrayed by a Statement released by a Prime Minister from the socialist party. Many LDP politicians in particular felt at the time that the Murayama Statement was too effusive and contrite in its admission of guilt.

The Koizumi Statement (2005) is the third important, and most overlooked, statement. It was made by Abe’s predecessor (during Abe’s first reign as Prime Minister from 2006-2007), Junichiro Koizumi, on the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. Koizumi was one of the most successful LDP politicians and was the longest tenured Prime Minister in Japan since the reign of Yasuhiro Nakasone in the mid-1980s. Moreover, Koizumi was known both for his pragmatism but also for his pride as a Japanese conservative, evidenced by repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which drew the ire of China and South Korea.

But while Koizumi rebuffed complaints from Beijing and Seoul on the Yasukuni issue, he maintained a strong balance through consistent engagement with both Northeast Asian neighbors on economic issues. Moreover, in his statement, Koizumi largely upheld the sentiments from Murayama claiming that “Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.” Koizumi also repeated Japan’s “heartfelt apology and deep remorse,” but noticeably did not reflect upon Murayama’s spear aimed at Japanese nationalists on the “irrefutable facts of history.” Another critical difference between the Koizumi statement and the more apology-focused texts of the Kono and Murayama statements is its predominant focus on Japan’s positive international role after the war.

Abe’s Turn

Abe has stressed the point on numerous occasions that his administration will uphold all statements made by his predecessorsAbe has stressed the point on numerous occasions that his administration will uphold all statements made by his predecessors. However, despite these assurances, South Korea remains critical of Abe’s approach. Before his election in late 2012, Abe criticized the Kono Statement in particular for its explicit reference to Japan’s culpability on the issue of “comfort women” in World War II. Since re-taking office, Abe made sure to take a more pragmatic approach to the issue and has been intentionally ambiguous on his feelings regarding the Kono Statement. While at Harvard during his state visit to the US this past April, Abe remarked that “when it comes to the comfort women issue, my heart aches when I think about those people who were victimized by human trafficking, who were subjected to immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description. My feeling is no different from my predecessors.”

But Abe’s support for the Kono statement appears to be more obligatory than substantive. This has further magnified the image – albeit often distorted for political purposes – in Seoul and Beijing of Abe as a revisionist bent on altering the traditional narrative of Japan’s culpability during the war period. And this sense has not been limited only to officials in China and South Korea. Despite an extremely successful visit from Abe to the US earlier this year, there remains a concern in Washington that Abe is not willing to mend ties with South Korea if that necessitates a public reiteration of the words contained in the Kono Statement. Indeed, several US experts on the region pointed to Abe’s lack of specific remarks about the “comfort women” issue in his Congressional speech as the one “dark spot” in an otherwise successful visit.

In addition, there are concerns that Abe will remove from his own statement key elements from the Murayama Statement, including references to Japan’s use of “aggression” or references to “nationalism” or the “irrefutable facts of history.” Indeed, Abe provoked controversy in 2013 when he questioned the definition of “aggression” in the Diet and remarked that determining these definitions was beyond the scope of politicians. The remarks predictably fueled intense criticism from China and South Korea that Abe was intending to emasculate the statements of his predecessors.

But the Koizumi Statement is especially critical when looking at Abe’s approach and forecasting the language he might use later this summer. Since retaking office in late 2012, Abe has repeatedly stressed his desire to put forth a statement that would be “forward looking” and focus on the public goods that Japan has provided to the international community since 1945. As a snapshot of this, Abe’s speech on the anniversary of the war last year previewed this approach through his articulation on the future and a lack of focus on the apologies of the past.

Geopolitics and History Collide

These historical strains continue to negatively impact Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. With regard to Seoul, many in Japan – and also some in the US – refer to “Korea fatigue “which represents their combined frustration that, after repeated apologies and compensation, Seoul still insists on Japan’s atonement.  On one hand, Japan’s so-called “Korea fatigue” is entirely understandable given that Tokyo has repeatedly apologized and made statements of remorse for its actions during the war period. Japan also provided South Korea with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and soft loans, which helped to build South Korea’s economy over the past several decades. Tokyo also feels that there should be closure on the historical issues after the two sides agreed to a grand bargain settlement to restore diplomatic ties in 1965 with their Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Thus, Japan has been frustrated with what it sees as South Korea’s unwillingness to separate history from political-security cooperation, which has led to a stalemate in relations between Tokyo and Seoul and created an abnormal situation of Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye not having held a formal summit since the latter took office in early 2013. This split has also elicited frustration in Washington, as the Obama Administration pushes to synergize a united trilateral relationship with its two Northeast Asian allies in order to deter North Korea and hedge against Chinese assertiveness and rapid military modernization. 

The US has a strong interest in patching up frayed ties between Japan and South KoreaOf course, the US has a strong interest in patching up frayed ties between Japan and South Korea in order to shore up deterrence against North Korea and push back on China’s increasing regional assertiveness. This has led the US to expend a painstaking amount of diplomatic capital on promoting Washington-Seoul-Tokyo trilateral cooperation and a smoother relationship between Tokyo and Seoul. The results have arguably not been worth the effort as Park only agreed to meet with Abe in a trilateral setting – last year in The Hague – focused purely on North Korean cooperation. However, it appears there might be some positive momentum towards the holding of a bilateral summit before the end of this year as both sides are now in serious discussions aimed at resolving the “comfort women” issue. Moreover, Japan and South Korea have both indicated their interest in attending a summit-level meeting with China at the end of this year. Complementing this high-level traction is a wide range of less recognized – but still important – cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul on a range of issues including security cooperation, negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement with China, and work on energy security and the environment.  

The new trilateral military information-sharing agreement, signed in December of last year, between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul demonstrates this clash between history and geopolitics. First, it is narrowly focussed on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and makes no mention of cooperation in other key areas on the conventional or cyber level. Second, the agreement, while theoretically trilateral, is essentially the marriage of two separate information-sharing pacts (U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea). The new agreement does not create a mechanism for all parties to evenly share information. Rather, it positions Washington as an intermediary through which information can be passed from Seoul to Tokyo, and vice versa. Unfortunately, this arrangement falls in line with the traditional “hub and spoke” mechanism of US alliances in Asia and does not align with the Obama administration’s rebalancing goal of networking its alliances in the region to be more interdependent.  

The geopolitical divide between China and Japan is fundamentally different than Tokyo’s spat with Seoul. Beijing and Tokyo are engaged in a strategic rivalry, hallmarked by tensions in the East China Sea and wrapped up in the broader trajectory of US-China ties, as a result of Japan’s security alliance with the US. As a secondary element, Beijing has coupled historical issues – such as high-level visits to Yasukuni shrine – with the larger strategic competition in order to help frame a narrative that Abe is both a revisionist and a militarist.       

The Abe Statement: A Choice of Words

Taking these factors into consideration, what will Abe’s statement later this summer look like? Most indications lead to the following general guidelines.

  • Abe will almost surely note his intention to uphold the statements of previous Japanese leaders, including Kono, Murayama and Koizumi. This reaffirmation would be regarded favourably in the US, but will be considered insufficient in China and South Korea unless Abe repeats key excerpts from the statements.
  • Like Koizumi, Abe will look to focus the attention of his remarks on a forward-looking statement that emphasizes the positive role Japan has played internationally since the end of World War II. This will also be an opportunity to frame Japan’s future role going forward and explain Abe’s policy of a “proactive contribution to peace.”  Much of this language would likely mirror Abe’s speech to the joint session of Congress in the US this past April and will focus on the importance of Japan and the Japan-US alliance in global security. 
  • While re-affirming previous statements, it is doubtful that Abe will specifically use verbatim language from his predecessors. Specifically, the new statement might leave out touch words such as “aggression”, “colonial rule”, “irrefutable facts of history.” Such omissions – especially a lack of apology or mention of colonial rule – will likely be seen in Seoul and Beijing as tantamount to a revisionist statement on history.  
  • As the statement is not intended to represent closure to the “comfort women” issue, it is unlikely that it will contain details or specific references to Japan’s guilt. While this issue will certainly irritate many in South Korea, this criticism may be dulled if Seoul and Tokyo are able to strike a deal on the “comfort women” issue before the summer’s statement.  

Taken as a whole, this paints a skeptical picture of the impending Abe statement. However, there is room for optimism. Abe has an opportunity to reiterate a sincere apology to countries in Asia that were deeply affected by Imperial Japan’s war. Moreover, while Abe may be a historical revisionist, he is also a geopolitical pragmatist. This pragmatism – especially the improved state of bilateral ties with China – will induce him to produce a balanced statement that, at the very least, acquiesces to Beijing’s concerns.

Implications for Canada

Canada has largely remained outside of the fray between Japan and its regional neighbors over history. This is understandable as Canada, despite its role in the Pacific theatre of World War II, is not in the position and has not build up the necessary relationships in the region to intervene. Even if Ottawa wanted to wade into the historical spat, it would be ill-advised as evidenced by Washington’s bloody nose. 

Yet, while Canada may not be scrutinizing Abe’s words later this summer, it should be paying close attention to the historical tensions in the region due to their larger geopolitical side effects. Canada’s interests in Asia are contingent on a stable and prosperous region led by dynamic economies with functioning political relationships. Nowhere is this more critical than Northeast Asia, with China, Japan and South Korea being Canada’s top three trading partners in the Asia Pacific. 

J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan and the Chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group at the Pacific Forum CSIS. He is also a fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute.  

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