Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, addresses the high-level summit on Strengthening International Peace Operations, held on the margins of the General Assembly general debate. Photo taken September 26, 2014. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)
Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, addresses the high-level summit on Strengthening International Peace Operations, held on the margins of the General Assembly general debate. Photo taken September 26, 2014. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

August 15 will mark 70 years since the end of World War II. Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe has indicated that he will make a statement marking the occasion, just as his predecessors did on the 50th anniversary in 1995 and on the 60th in 2005. It is hard not to sympathize with Abe, who cannot now avoid taking a very public and very official stand on “the history problem“ and will have great difficulty avoiding brickbats no matter what he says.

The anniversary is almost six months away, but the global media are already ramping up their coverage. Chinese and Korean diplomats have been working the back channels for weeks and the public sparring has now begun. Prominent Japanese politicians such as former prime minister Yasuo Fukuda and former deputy prime minister Yohei Kono have already weighed in. Even the crown prince, in a dramatic breach of tradition, has spoken publicly on the matter.

Abe has already said that he will stand by previous apologies for Japan’s conduct prior to and during World War II, so we should not expect an explicit retraction or repudiation. But this commitment is not having a calming effect. His precise words will matter. He has at least three options:

  1. History Lite. Here Abe would make the obligatory nod to previous apologies but craft a statement that focuses on the positives, such as Japan’s peaceful postwar development, its 70-year record of good global citizenship, and its willingness and intention to play an active future role promoting global welfare, security, and good governance. The subtext would be that World War II was a horrible thing, but that it is time to move on and stop browbeating Japan with its past.
  2. Status Quo. Here Abe would take care to echo as closely as possible the precise words of then-prime minister Tomichii Murayama, who in 1995 expressed “heartfelt apology” and acknowledged frankly that Japan had, “through its colonial rule and invasion, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations,” as well as Junichiro Koizumi, who in 2005 said, “Our country has caused tremendous damage and pain to the peoples of many countries, especially Asian countries, through colonial rule and invasion. Humbly acknowledging such facts of history, I once again reflect most deeply and offer apologies from my heart.” Like his predecessors, he would note that postwar Japan has been and will continue to be a good global citizen, but he would take care not to look as though he were dodging history.
  3. Apology Plus. Not only would Abe reaffirm and echo previous apologies, but he would add something new in the form of a lengthier or more emphatic mea culpa, or he would announce some new policy or initiative intended to gratify and put to rest some of his critics’ complaints. No one expects Abe to do this.

In deciding which approach to take, Abe will look in three places. First, he will look inward. There is no question that if he simply spoke from the heart, he would go with History Lite. Even before he first became prime minister in 2006, he signaled his desire to end Japan’s postwar probation, bolster national pride, and position Japan to face future challenges through an ambitious program of domestic reform and “normalization” of its international role, which in his view requires closing the books on World War II and throwing off the shackles of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution.

Abe is a politician, of course, and so he will also consider the views of Japanese voters. His conservative base would certainly also prefer History Lite. Some on the Japanese left—most notably, the Japanese Communist Party—would no doubt be delighted by Apology Plus, but Abe has no electoral incentive to cater to this group; they won’t vote for him anyway, and most Japanese voters think Japan has apologized enough.

The third place Abe must look is abroad. The three most important (and most attentive) audiences are in China, Korea, and the United States. Beijing and Seoul would clearly interpret History Lite as insufficient and as evidence of a lack of genuine remorse. It would not be surprising if History Lite led to anti-Japanese riots, at least in China. Given Abe’s image in these countries as an “ultraconservative revisionist,” even a Status Quo statement would be interpreted as disingenuous—but at least it would be harder to object to, and for that reason American officials would strongly prefer it, because they simply want Abe to rock the boat as little as possible. China and Korea would no doubt be shocked if Abe chose Apology Plus—Korea pleasantly, China warily—but it would be too easy for China, Korea, and the Japanese public to portray this as caving in to pressure, which Abe and others would interpret as undermining the credibility of Japanese deterrence.

Sensibly, Abe is seeking advice on what to say. He has convened a panel of experts to evaluate the options and make recommendations. At the very least, they may come up with some good ideas. At worst, they will allow Abe to spread the blame a bit.

All things considered, no matter which of these three approaches Abe takes, he stands to lose internationally, and either lose or gain nothing domestically. From this he will probably conclude that he might just as well say what he thinks.

There is, however, a fourth, outside-the-box option.

Since Abe has already committed to reaffirming prior apologies, he has no choice but to do this. My advice would be to lead with it, and make no bones about it. As far as possible he should quote the exact words of his predecessors. He can represent these sentiments—correctly—as the sentiments of a majority of Japanese citizens. If he is willing to add that they are his sentiments as well, so much the better. And if he could bring himself to add a dash of Apology Plus—perhaps, for example, in the form of announcing a new, direct compensation program for surviving “comfort women” in recognition of their pain and suffering—he would catch everyone completely off guard and garner at least a little praise from unexpected quarters.

But since everyone expects Abe’s statement to be largely or entirely about Japan, the rest of his statement should be about anything but.

The bulk of Abe’s statement should be one part charm offensive and one part challenge. Let him wax eloquent about the great strides toward prosperity China and Korea have made since World War II. Let him exalt the benefits of postwar economic interdependence. Let him praise the United States for its commitment to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Let him marvel at the decline of interstate war, the growth and robustness of regional governance mechanisms, and the spread of democracy and human rights. Let him sound the clarion call of respect for the sovereign equality of all countries, the rule of law, the peaceful settlement of disputes—and let him connect all of these to the lessons of World War II. If he cannot resist the temptation to say something further about Japan, let him close the statement by holding up Japan as a model lesson-learner and a committed contributor to further progress.

Abe—and Japan—can only lose by writing the kind of script that everyone else expects. That would be followership in any case. The 70th anniversary offers an opportunity for Japan to take the lead. One does not have to be a historical revisionist to see the vast gulf between prewar Japan and Japan today and to see that the latter has so much to offer.

The 70th anniversary offers an opportunity for Japan to take the lead. One does not have to be a historical revisionist to see the vast gulf between prewar Japan and Japan today and to see that the latter has so much to offer.
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