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Legacy of war in Asia

Nothing short of a proper apology will bring full acceptance of Japan

Prime Minister Abe has had numerous chances to apologise for Japan’s wartime atrocities but has not taken them, to the detriment of his country’s image

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 1:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 1:06am

Historical disputes will always get in the way of relations unless they are resolutely put behind. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a point of not apologising for his nation’s brutality before and during the second world war, instead stopping short by merely acknowledging suffering and expressing regret. Officials have already said there will only be prayers for the fallen when he makes a landmark visit on Monday to Pearl Harbour, the site of the attack 75 years ago that pushed the US into the Pacific conflict. He may believe that Tokyo’s ties with Washington are solid thanks to long-standing military agreements, but international acceptance of Japan as a “normal” country will always have detractors while there is a refusal to show sincerity for past aggression.

Abe will be the first Japanese leader to go to Pearl Harbour, where 2,400 American soldiers and civilians were killed in air raids. On Tuesday, he will hold a summit with outgoing US president Barack Obama, who similarly made history seven months ago when he became his country’s first serving president to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the site of the first of two atomic bombings that brought the war to a close. The prime minister’s trip aims to send a message about reconciliation.

Obama offered no apology in Hiroshima, but nor did he need to; as devastating as the nuclear bombs were, their use brought to a swift end a conflict that could well have claimed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more lives.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe under pressure from right-wing to offer no apology during Pearl Harbour visit

Abe’s circumstances are markedly different, though, his country’s lack of a sincere apology for atrocities in Asia, particularly in China and Korea, causing continuing tension. His conservative nationalism, including a revisionist approach towards history and efforts to rewrite pacifist parts of the US-drafted constitution to allow a war-ready military, causes as much disquiet in Washington as northeast Asia. The prime minister has had numerous opportunities to apologise, most notably last year when marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and when he became the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of the US congress, but has instead chosen to talk about the need to put the past behind.

That is likely again at Pearl Harbour. But US president-elect Donald Trump has spoken of a new relationship with Japan and although he has already held talks with Abe, no clear foreign policy has yet been laid out. As in Asia, nothing short of an apology will dispel the continuing negative sentiment.