Japan PM’s WWII anniversary speech

Shinzo Abe's tragic missed opportunity

Much-awaited speech leaves out Pacific war and sex slave issue

What can definitely be said about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II is that it lived down to the very low expectations it had engendered.

There was no surprise. It was wooden, formal and ritualistic.

Readers who know Japan will be familiar with the distinction between tatemae and honne. Tatemae is what is said for the public gallery; it is for decorum, and not meant to be sincere. What one really thinks is honne. The speech was all tatemae.

Mr Abe's honne is reflected in what he did not include in his speech: any expression of sympathy, apology or humanity for the women - euphemistically labelled "comfort women" (ianfu) - sexually enslaved by the Japanese military during the Pacific War.

The greatest number came from colonised Korea but were also to be found in the entirety of Asia under Japanese military occupation, including Singapore.

The politically powerful Japanese nationalist right, of which Mr Abe is a member, has repeatedly questioned the existence of the sex slaves. Some have suggested it was American propaganda. Others have asserted that the women were not sex slaves but common prostitutes. All this adds profound insult to the heinous injury.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bowing at an altar during the annual memorial service for war victims in Tokyo on Saturday. The politically powerful Japanese nationalist right, of which Mr Abe is a member, has repeatedly questioned the existence of sex slaves. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Readers who know Japan will be familiar with the distinction between tatemae and honne. Tatemae is what is said for the public gallery; it is for decorum, and not meant to be sincere. What one really thinks is honne. The speech was all tatemae.

In a statement in March, over 200 leading historians of Japan wrote: "Among the many instances of wartime sexual violence and military prostitution in the 20th century, the 'comfort women' system was distinguished by its large-scale and systematic management under the military, and by its exploitation of young, poor and vulnerable women in areas colonised or occupied by Japan." In the light of the twin effects of time and war, the precise number is difficult to ascertain.

But, as the statement asserts: "Whether the numbers are judged to have been in the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands will not alter the fact of the exploitation carried out throughout the Japanese empire and its war zones. This year presents an opportunity for the government of Japan to show leadership by addressing Japan's history of colonial rule and wartime aggression in both words and action."

 
 
 

As action speaks louder than words, especially so in a land of tatemae and honne, I suggested in an earlier article ("WWII wounds in Asia continue to fester") that Mr Abe should go and bow in front of the memorial to the sex slaves in Seoul. Mr Abe's inaction, however, conforms to a pattern set by all his predecessors.

As Dr Stephen Nagy, from International Christian University in Tokyo, has written: "To date, no sitting Japanese prime minister has visited prominent WWII memorials dedicated to the Nanking Massacre, comfort women or other war-related issues". This stands out as another stark contrast with Germany, the most poignant of which was the occasion when then Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt and wept in front of the Warsaw ghetto memorial in 1970.

(Emperor Hirohito visited London and Washington in 1971 to express regrets but no such visit was paid to the capital of any Asian country under Japanese occupation. He died in 1989.)

The only very vague allusion made to the sex slave issue in Mr Abe's speech is in one sentence: "We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured."

Clearly, by undertaking a proper action of contrition, an effort could be made not to restore honour and dignity to the former sex slaves - that is impossible - but at least to recognise in a meaningful way the truly enormous amount of humanity they are due.

The Japanese do not have a monopoly on rape and sexual enslavement. Alas, this tragedy has befallen women throughout history and continues to this day.

A New York Times article last week, titled ISIS Enshrines A Theology Of Rape, described the harrowing practices of rape, including on children, perpetrated by the the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants . There is also the extreme tragic case of sexual enslavement by Boko Haram in Nigeria. But this infamy towards women in the world presents, all the more, a compelling reason why an act showing unqualified remorse and humanity to those so inhumanely treated by the Japanese military during the Pacific War could have had, at the very least, a moral impact.

As the statement by the historians concludes: "Since the equal rights and dignity of women lie at the core of the 'comfort women' issue, its resolution would be a historic step towards the equality of women and men in Japan, East Asia and the world".

Mr Abe's speech is a tragic missed opportunity. There can be no healing of wounds. The terrible inhumanity perpetrated by Japan's military on these innocent women will remain one of history's darkest moments of man's inhumanity to woman.

• Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University. He has been visiting professor at a number of Japanese universities, notably Tohoku University in Sendai.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Shinzo Abe's tragic missed opportunity'. Print Edition | Subscribe