By Cathy Zhu
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and countries across the world, from China to Germany, are hosting memorials and parades to commemorate the event. At the same time, tensions persist, as several wartime issues remain unresolved. As a result of these tensions, the Asia-Pacific region is apprehensively looking towards Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's upcoming speech on the 70th anniversary.
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, then-Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement apologizing for Japan’s wartime aggression. But Abe’s nationalist policies, including his move to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution and increase the scope of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have nations worldwide worried about his stance on apologies. China and Korea in particular voice concerns about how Japanese textbooks describe Japan’s role in the war.
Unfortunately, giving anything resembling an apology on an international level is more complicated than it should be. U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized for his “apology tour” in 2009, when he gave a series of speeches around the world that many perceived as acknowledging the U.S.’ shortcomings. Critics condemned it as “un-American”, arguing that it gave concessions to U.S. rivals and sacrificed America’s reputation in exchange for little political gain. Even Germany, which has apologized, paid reparations and continues to acknowledge the long-lasting ramifications of WWII, still gets trapped in the politics of apologies. Greece has contended that the reparations were insufficient and has demanded greater compensation.
In most cases, such apologies cause more controversy internally than externally. Much like the Republican Party in the U.S., which slammed Obama’s speeches for being too apologetic, the right-wing in Japan rejects concessions for Japan’s wartime actions. For national leaders it can be a delicate balance between trying to build better relations abroad and retaining voter support and a good image at home. Ultimately, it takes a lot of trust among all the parties involved for a country to be willing to take on the responsibility of a formal national apology.
The attitude Prime Minister Abe has expressed towards the upcoming speech presents a pertinent question on the role of present governments in a country’s history— to what extent are contemporary governments responsible for the actions of leaders in the past? And to what extent should expressions of remorse be tied to that responsibility?
A Japanese apology might go a long way toward decreasing tensions in East Asia. However the likelihood of such an apology is discouragingly low. More likely than not, we will see the 70th anniversary of WWII come and go as the region continues to be inflicted by these residual issues. An apology may seem like a small verbal gesture, but on an international scale it carries much more significance.