Goh Sui Noi, Senior Writer

Abe's refusal to offer apology diminishes Japan

CHINA and South Korea's ire over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech to the US Congress is to be expected, given that he chose to gloss over Japan's war of aggression in East Asia during World War II.

In the run-up to his address last Wednesday to a joint session of Congress - the first Japanese premier to do so - pressure had mounted for him to repeat previous official apologies for Japan's wartime past, not just from South Korea but also from the United States.

Just before Mr Abe arrived in Washington, 24 US lawmakers wrote to the Japanese ambassador to the US, asking the Japanese leader to "lay the foundation for healing and humble reconciliation by addressing the historical issues".

Early last week, Mr Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said at a press briefing in Washington: "We always stress that it is important to address history questions in an honest, constructive and forthright manner that promotes healing, but also in a way that reaches a final resolution."

Mr Abe's reference in his speech to Japan's wartime past did none of that. Instead, there was much fudging.

He said: "Post war, we started out on our path bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse over the war. Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard."

Not only was there no apology for his country's wartime atrocities, but also no acknowledgement that Japan had waged a war of aggression in the region. He made reference to "the views" of previous premiers - possibly to the formal apologies made by prime ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi - in such general terms that it was almost meaningless.

Mr Abe's words showed the revisionist tendencies he has displayed, including in remarks made in recent years questioning the definition of the word "aggression" used in Mr Murayama's 1995 apology, and saying there was no international consensus on the term. That was in spite of a United Nations General Assembly resolution in 1974 that defined "aggression" as "the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another state".

The South Koreans, particularly, had called for an apology to "comfort women" - women coerced into providing sex to Japanese soldiers during WWII, many of whom were Korean.

Instead, Mr Abe offered only this: "Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most. In our age, we must realise the kind of world where finally women are free from human rights abuses." This was as Ms Lee Yong Soo, 86, a former comfort woman from South Korea, sat in the audience.

The applause and standing ovation of his audience notwithstanding, the US should be vexed by Mr Abe's whitewashing of history as it does nothing for its triangular security alliance with Japan and South Korea to counter the North Korean nuclear threat and China's rise. South Korean President Park Geun Hye has refused to hold a bilateral summit with Mr Abe until he apologises for the injustices to comfort women.

Indeed, Japan could have played a much more important leadership role in Asia if it had, as former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia Susan Shirk put it in a Bloomberg interview, "confronted its history in a more forthright and honest manner, going way back to the post-war period".

Instead, as the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs, Japan's reluctance to admit the past and apologise for it has "fed suspicions of Japan's future intentions" .

Mr Lee made clear why an apology is needed: "To apologise is to admit having done a wrong. To express regrets or remorse merely expresses their present subjective feelings."

For Asia and Japan to move on - and they must - the Japanese need to put the apology issue to rest, he wrote.

In another of his books, One Man's View Of The World, Mr Lee said that while the Japanese may have apologised many times, they have also continued to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where the country's war criminals, including those from WWII, are interred. Among the Japanese leaders to have visited the shrine while in office is Mr Abe, who went in December 2013, angering China and South Korea.

Now these East Asian neighbours of Japan will be watching closely Mr Abe's speech in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, to see if he continues in the vein of his address to Congress.

And so should countries in the region that also suffered Japanese atrocities, given that Mr Abe is attempting to change the country's pacifist Constitution - already, a reinterpretation of the Constitution has allowed it to widen its security alliance with the US - to give its military a greater role than defending its shores.

For if the Japanese do not see their country's wartime past as a wrong against their Asian neighbours, what is to stop them from committing it again?

suinoi@sph.com.sg