Why It Matters

East Asia thaw still on track

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a memorial service ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II at Budokan Hall in Tokyo on Aug 15, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statement on Japan's role in World War II disappointed his country's neighbours which suffered deeply under Japanese occupation and colonial rule.

But the measured responses from China and South Korea reflected their desire to keep tensions in the region under control as they grapple with their slowing economies.

In his statement last Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Mr Abe pointed out the "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" expressed by past Japanese leaders, but offered none of his own. Instead, he expressed "profound grief" for those who died.

His reference to Japan's aggression was oblique: "Incident, aggression, war - we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

On the women in the region - mostly Koreans - coerced into sexual slavery, he had only this to say: "We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured."

So it was that South Korean President Park Geun Hye said the statement "leaves much to be desired".

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Japan "should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made a sincere apology… rather than being evasive".

But there was no rabid official condemnation even if netizens and the media had much to say. South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said "sincere action" was more important than words.

Mr Abe's statement is unlikely to derail efforts on all three sides to reduce simmering tensions over their history and territorial disputes.

However, given Mr Abe's failure to appease his neighbours by not being more forthright with an apology or acknowledgement of Japan's war of aggression, reconciliation is unlikely to happen during his term. That will make his efforts to turn Japan into a normal country all the more difficult.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline East Asia thaw still on track. Subscribe