Japan has again missed an opportunity to apologise for its wartime past

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 May, 2015, 1:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 May, 2015, 1:02am

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's historic speech to a joint US congress was always going to be dissected for what it did and did not say. The highlight of his American trip that included a summit with President Barack Obama and the signing of a new security pact, it offered a chance for Japan to deal with its past and move assuredly towards the future. But it has done neither: the lack of an apology for wartime atrocities committed against neighbours is a glaring omission. With the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender just months away and a statement being drafted to mark the occasion, there is still a chance.

The lack of an apology is hampering ties with China and South Korea, with which Japan has territorial disputes. Abe broached the suffering inflicted on Asians in his speech, saying Japanese felt deep remorse, but he failed to go further. He referred to statements of contrition by predecessors, the most far-reaching being by Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, but he did not name the prime minister, nor repeat his words, saying simply that he upheld the views. Chinese and Koreans want concerns directly addressed, not alluded to or shied away from.

Their anguish is warranted, after all. While Japan has been generous towards the region with post-war aid, there has been no effort to apologise to the millions of victims of aggression and their relatives or to offer compensation. Even on the issue of 'comfort women' - the women and girls forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers - Abe evaded responsibility.

He hit the right notes where the US was concerned, though. Alliances were praised, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Washington's multilateral trade agreement that is close to approval, was backed and the necessity of defence reforms that will allow Japan to send troops overseas was explained. The latter complements the revised defence security guidelines, which lay the foundations for greater cooperation and support. China is not directly mentioned, but the document provides the basis for circumstances in which it could be confronted.

Abe is eager for a turnaround of Japan's economy. That cannot happen unless fences are mended with neighbours, especially China. His cordial meeting with President Xi Jinping last month in Indonesia provides hope. So, too, does the reconciliation between Japan and the US, once the bitterest of enemies and now staunch allies. The starting point, though, has to begin with a heartfelt apology to Asians - and for now, the opportunity for that has again been missed.