Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a statement in Tokyo on Friday marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. He acknowledged Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” on innocent people but said generations not involved in the conflict should not be burdened with continued apologies. TORU HANAI/REUTERS
Japanese Prime Minister Shinjo Abe’s statement on the seventieth anniversary of Imperial Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces ending World War II weaved several themes with heavy rhetoric. Whether it persuades or not remains a question.
He explains, in a somewhat veiled language, Japan’s initial military expansion as a reaction to incursions of Western colonial powers to East Asia and the American attempt to isolate and contain Japan in a process of ambitious modernization. Japan alone among the Asian nations, Abe implies, had the power and courage to counter Western domination and to liberate Asians from Western aggression and exploitation. The Japanese forces marched with the slogan “We Will Build a Pan-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” An appeal was made to an attributed Asian xenophobia.
Abe cites the expressions of sadness and remorse offered by post-war Japanese leaders over the suffering that Japan caused to countless people in the regions under Japanese occupation.
The reader wonders if he was making such citations with an honest admission to Japan’s commission of such crimes against humanity as the Nanjing Massacre, medical experimentation on live humans, sexual enslavement and exploitation of Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Dutch women by the military, exploitation of tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean men in Japanese mines and factories, and torture and murder of prisoners of war — acts incongruous with the self-conferred status of a liberator.
Given the fact that the word “apology” was used by a past Japanese leader, could Abe’s reference to all expressions of contrition by his predecessors with endorsement be taken to mean that he himself apologized? The semantics and pragmatics of “apology” differ from “sad” and “remorseful.” Sadness and remorse are subjective states that do not necessarily imply a determination of will.
A sentimental wrong-doer may be sad and remorseful about the suffering his act causes, yet he may be determined to repeat it for reasons he deems overriding. He may even poetize the inner conflicts. Sincerity is necessary for apology. To apologize to a victim of one’s wrong doing is to confess his guilt for the deed, to ask for forgiveness, and to willingly accept a corrective measure, and to do his part in the corrective process. An apology is a moral ritual and action.
Post-war Germany accepted collective German guilt for Nazi atrocities, condemned and outlawed the Nazi party, compensated the surviving victims and relatives of deceased victims of the Holocaust, let a Holocaust memorial be built in Berlin, and has sought and prosecuted participants in Nazi atrocities. The Japanese admiration for German culture does not include an emulation of German virtue.
The Japanese government has never apologized to the Chinese and Korean women made into sex slaves by the Japanese military nor the Chinese and Korean men who were used as slave laborers. Aside from the question of whether or not Prime Minister Abe apologized this time, no due apology in full sense has ever been made by Japan.
Abe’s statement obsequiously thanks the mercy and generosity of some of her victorious foes for her rapid recovery from ruins to peace and prosperity. But he significantly omits the benefit Japan received from the American-imposed pacifist constitution in growing into a peaceful democracy. Nor is there any mention made of his political engineering to change the constitution to allow Japan to participate in military action beyond self-defense despite strong opposition from numerous Japanese citizens. Abe’s appreciation for foreign help in nation building starkly contrasts with his escalating aggressiveness toward the Asian neighbors Japan wronged.
Prime Minister Abe concludes by expressing his hope that the future Japanese generations will not be “predestined” to repeat apologies. To ground such hope his government should bring to a closure the prolonged game of rationalization, evasion and obfuscation. It should also renounce and discourage, rather than condone or instigate, public acts belying gestures of reconciliation such as having historical facts distorted in school textbooks and making territorial claims in an increasingly belligerent and official tone.
At least a half of the Japanese citizenry seems to approve of a vision of Pan-Asian alliance of nations for peace and prosperity true to the name — a framework for cooperative interaction for economic development and prosperity, for deepening cultural ties enabled by their shared cultural resources, and for establishing peace and justice among nations drawing from the reservoir of ancient wisdom they share. East Asia could become a global paradigm for humane coexistence of humans, not another armed bloc. Can Abe and his supporters be persuaded to redirect their will? We wonder.
The writers are professor of philosophy of Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, and professor of finance & international business of Seton Hall University, New Jersey, respectively. Both have recently served as visiting professors at the University of International Business and Economics, Beijing.