By Kim Myong Sik
The Korea Herald/ANN
As it was widely known that the office of Japanese prime minister had laboured a lot to produce an important statement (as a Cabinet decision) on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, I gave it close scrutiny after gleaning the full English text from the website of the Japanese Foreign Ministry last weekend.
Many people had taken keen interest in the document because so much noise was made in Japan over what words it should and should not include regarding Japan's imperialist aggressions. The Japanese media reported a summary of advisories by a group Mr Shinzo Abe commissioned to work on a framework of content, while several former prime ministers warned him against departing from the level of repentance that previous administrations had expressed in the past.
First, I wondered how accurately the English text aiming at the international audience conveyed the nuances of the original Japanese statement, as some awkward phrases were spotted in the 1,680-word English version. Then, I was intrigued by what I would call "virtual syllogism" employed in the part of Japan owning up to its wartime guilt.
"Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war," the statement said. "Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future."
I felt sorry for the drafter's travail to avoid saying "I (we) do apologize now": "A" (previous Cabinets) did "X"; "B" (future cabinets) will follow what "A" had done; so "C" (the present Tokyo government) only virtually assures doing the same without actually saying so.
Why is Mr Abe so allergic to making a direct apology for his country's historical sins? He gives an answer in the latter part of the statement. Observing that the postwar generations now exceed 80 per cent of Japanese population, Mr Abe, 60, vowed to save the posterity from the bondage of endless apologies. "We must not let our children, grandchildren … who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise."
While Japanese leaders are anxious to end the chain of apologies, let us now ask ourselves how sorely do we need and desire to hear a Japanese apology that could at best be perfunctory.
Mr Abe's statement cited a "heartfelt apology" but it was mentioned in the past tense. Those who understand Japanese point to the semantic ambiguity in the original Japanese word awabi.
We just observed the 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation. Seventy years is a long time. Old literature called it rare in terms of human age (though it is not so rare these days).
Christians find a special meaning from this particular number of years, as it corresponds to the duration of the Israelis' Babylonian captivity. It is twice the length of the 35-year Japanese colonial rule.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye proudly reviewed "the great path" the nation has taken for the past 70 years and used a few minutes in her address to comment on Mr Abe's anniversary statement, with an unexpectedly positive note. Over the past decades, rhetoric abounded about forgetting, forgiving, forward-looking, etc. regarding Japan.
Many people here who want to "wrap things up" feel sick and tired. Our president may empathise with them.
I was born in 1941, the year of the Pearl Harbour attack that started the Pacific War. With nearly no memory of the colonial days, people of my generation have lived without much thought about Japan, with their life preoccupied with reconstruction from the war, revolutions and democratic struggles. The 1965 rapprochement was a major political event but was soon overwhelmed by domestic upheavals of the 1970s.
Of course, we knew how much Koreans suffered under the Japanese encroachment but we thought it was the price the nation paid for its inability to modernize in the crucial 19th century.
From the late 1980s, Koreans old and young came to a new awakening with pride and confidence bolstered by economic and political advancement, and challenged Japan for its past war crimes. Japanese liberals offered significant moral and political support in this movement.
Successive Japanese governments used various expressions atonement up to the landmark statement of apology in 1995 by Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. Twenty years later, Mr Abe prepared a document that could least antagonize Korean and Chinese neighbors and gain approval from the international audience while not betraying his nationalist supporters.
The Abe statement repeatedly said that "we will engrave in our hearts" how the imperialist Japan used force to settle international disputes and committed other atrocities.
Yet, it exposed a unique historical view: the Western colonial rule that surged toward Asia in the 19th century drove Japan toward modernisation and eventual militarism; victory in the Russo-Japanese war encouraged victims of Western imperialism from Asia to Africa; and the Great Depression and economic ostracism against Japan forced it to advance along the road to war.
Despite the seemingly painstaking process of producing the document, I cannot but have the overall impression that it was the combination of two or three parts drafted by different authors with different ideas - nationalist(s) taking charge of the historical portion and liberal moralists writing about the future.
Entering the second half of her five-year tenure, Ms Park, who maintained a tough stance toward Tokyo during the first half, did not try to hide her readiness to shift to flexibility on the bilateral relations.
Mr Abe's mention of the injuries to women's honor and dignity during the past war in apparent reference to the sex slavery issue could have softened the President's attitude. Her only request was Japan's "early and reasonable action" to resolve the "comfort women" issue.
Washington welcomed the Abe statement while Beijing resented its failure to address the real problems. In between, Seoul showed a fair degree of magnanimity, giving credence to Abe's manifestation that his government would faithfully abide by its predecessors' historical recognition. Park's only request was Tokyo's act of sincerity for the future.
Well, after 70 years, few in North-east Asia, the United States or Europe would like to see continued haggling between Tokyo and other capitals over an "apology".
On the 70th anniversary, we have confirmed the limit of Japanese conscience as officially expressed in its latest prime ministerial statement. It seems our only option is showing magnanimity that can be a profitable investment in international relations, if a little risky.
Kim Myong Sik, a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald, served as head of the Korea Overseas Information Service.