Japan’s Abe apologizes for Second World War, but warns future generations can’t be expected to do same

TOKYO — Prime Minister ’s bid to draw a line under ’s past apologies for its wartime actions risks undermining a fragile thaw in ties with his country’s two biggest trading partners in Asia.

In a long-awaited statement to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s War II surrender — one aimed at South Korea and China as much as his own citizens — Abe said that Japanese people “must squarely face the history of the past.” Still, future generations can’t be expected to keep apologizing, he said.

In crafting the first official Japanese statement on the war in a decade, Abe sought to mend frayed ties with China and South Korea, which have accused him of trying to whitewash history and revive Japanese militarism. His challenge was to offer enough contrition to lead to a thaw in relations, while keeping his nationalist base on side.

China urges Japan to make a “sincere apology” and produce clear explanations on the nature of its “militarist, invasive past and its responsibilities” rather than obscuring the issue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on the ministry’s website after the speech.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui delivered China’s “solemn stance” on Abe’s statement to Japan’s top envoy to Beijing, Masato Kitera, Hua said.

Abe’s statement “is not of much help to eliminating Tokyo’s trust deficit,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary. “It fails to firm up — if not serving to further undercut — the credibility the Abe government needs to put Japan’s interaction with its Asian neighbors back on track.”

Xinhua writer Tian Dongdong accused Abe of watering down a statement 20 years ago by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who unlike Abe offered a personal apology for Japan’s wartime aggression.

Abe said that Japan inflicted “immeasurable damage” on the people of Asia, still his remorse won’t be enough to end the “history wars,” Tobias Harris, a political risk analyst with Teneo Intelligence, said in an e-mail.

“To the extent that the Abe statement allows Japanese conservatives to argue that Japan has apologized enough for its wartime behavior, it could exacerbate tensions in the future,” he wrote.

Abe has yet to hold a formal summit with either Chinese leader Xi Jinping or South Korean President Park Geun-hye as both leaders have said improved ties to Japan depend on taking more responsibility for its wartime past. The strained ties threaten to damp investment and trade with two countries that buy more than a quarter of Japanese exports.

Xi agreeing to meet with Abe on the sidelines of a conference in Indonesia in April, and Park’s decision to attend a ceremony in June to mark 50 years since the normalization of diplomatic relations were seen as tepid steps to ease tensions. The war statement was an opportunity to accelerate this.

While there was no official reaction from Park’s government, her ruling Saenuri Party was more circumspect than Xinhua in its response.

“Abe’s speech is meaningful in that it mentions the apology and shows his ‘complex and sorrowful mind’ about the past,” the party wrote in a statement. “At the same time Abe mentions the apology in the past tense, which means the speech is lacking.”

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, citing an unidentified foreign ministry spokesman, said the speech did not genuinely recognize Japan’s history of aggression.

The White House said in an e-mailed comment that it welcomed Abe’s “expression of deep remorse” and his “commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history.”

In the months before the statement, Abe had said that he planned to uphold previous statement on the war, though his would be more forward-looking. Pressure from China and South Korea as well as Abe’s pacifist coalition partner, resulted in an statement that touched on remorse and apology to Japan’s neighbors, Harris wrote in an e-mail.

Abe did make several specific references to the suffering of the Chinese at the hands of the Imperial Army in his statement, mentioning the “emotional struggle” of the Chinese people whose “unbearable sufferings” were caused by the Japanese military.

Garren Mulloy, associate professor at Daito Bunka University in Saitama near Tokyo, said the scant reference to Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea and the Imperial Army’s practice of forcing women into military brothels could be a tension point.

“It’s impossible to please everyone,” he said. “But it leaves one wondering what Abe would really like to have said.”

— Contributors: Ting Shi and David Tweed in Hong Kong, Sam Kim in Seoul and Sangwon Yoon at the United Nations.

About Isabel Reynolds, Washington Post