Room to Maneuver

The Prospects for Pragmatism in Japan's Regional Relations

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 2014.  Kim Kyung-Hoon / REUTERS

On August 15, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a highly anticipated statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The weeks prior to the statement had brought a barrage of handwringing about whether Abe would revise or gloss over statements of apology issued by previous Japanese governments and whether he would offer a personal, rather than an official, statement of Tokyo’s position. China and South Korea, in particular, were concerned that Abe’s allegedly revisionist view of regional history might lead to his repudiation of the traditional narrative of Japan's wartime guilt. In the view of Beijing and Seoul, Japan's willingness to apologize for its role in World War II would reflect Tokyo's commitment to improving regional ties, which have long been burdened by the weight of a contested history. Indeed, both of Japan’s neighbors believe that improved relations with Tokyo depend on a more conciliatory approach to wartime history on the part of the Abe administration.

Abe's statement met with mixed reviews in the region. On the one hand, the Japanese prime minister managed to satisfy some South Korean and Chinese concerns by including key phrases used in previous Japanese apologies—references, for example, to Japan's "aggression" and "colonial rule" and expressions of a "heartfelt apology" and "deep remorse" for the country's actions. That language was borrowed from a statement by former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, whose 1995 apology has remained a benchmark for official statements over the two decades since. And Abe gained official cabinet approval for his statement, which alleviated concerns in Beijing, in Seoul, and among the Japanese opposition that he would offer an unsanctioned take on regional history. On the other hand, Abe's statement met with some skepticism: both the Chinese and South Korean governments questioned Abe's decision to go no further in his remarks than his predecessors had, rather than issue a new apology. Beijing termed Abe’s speech “evasive”; South Korean President Park Geun-hye said that his

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