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Foreign Policy

The Paradox of Abe’s Speech

Aug 25 , 2015
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

On August 14, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released his speech marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, attracting wide attention from the international community, especially China and South Korea. The main reason is that the phrase “Abe’s speech” relates to the duration or abolition of the post-war order in East Asia, even the international order. Since coming to power, Abe’s administration has made significant, even radical adjustments in Japan’s foreign policy, by revising the Three Principles on Arms Exports, lifting the ban on collective self-defense, passing the new controversial security bill at the Diet, and so on. At the same time, the Japanese government continues to be half-hearted in reflections on the history of aggression during World War II, and trying to revise history textbooks to dilute and distort the historical memory of younger Japanese generations. Moreover, Japanese right-wingers even openly deny the history of aggression, with the former Japan’s Air Self Defense Force Chief of Staff Toshio Tamogami a typical representative. In early August, he publicly denied the Nanjing Massacre and the history of aggression in WWII in a BBC interview. [1]Even Abe himself claimed that “aggression” doesn’t have a clear “definition” in “international law”, and constantly challenged the bottom line of Asian countries, repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. All of that shows that there is a powerful historical revisionism reflux in Japan, causing a high degree of vigilance in China, South Korea and other countries. In this context, the contents of “Abe’s speech” touched the nerves of all related parties.

“Abe’s Speech” could be divided into three main parts. The first one looks back at history. Abe said that owing to the economic crisis in the 1930s and the Western countries launching economic blocs by involving colonial economies, “Japan’s economy suffered a major blow.”[2] In such circumstances, “Japan’s sense of isolation deepened and it attempted to overcome its diplomatic and economic deadlock through the use of force.” As a result,“Japan lost sight of the overall trends in the world,” becoming the challenger of a new international order, and then “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.” He mentioned the words “aggression”, “colonial rule”, and “remorse”, “apology” in indirect or ambiguous ways. For example, the speech mentioned “remorse” and “apology” by reviewing the stands of the previous Cabinets, saying “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war.” When it comes to the “aggression” and “colonial rule”, it didn’t even elaborate the subject and the object of these actions. In addition, Abe’s attitudes towards comfort women remains vague, although he mentioned in his speech, “We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” For this reason, former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama criticized “Abe’s speech” for lacking clarity in its content, and “fine phrases were written, but the statement does not say what the apology is for and what to do from now on.”[3]


The second part is to call for reconciliation. Abe remarked that Japan received the tolerance and the help from the countries in the Asia-Pacific region, which advanced Japan’s development after WWII, noting “the fact that more than six million Japanese repatriates managed to come home safely after the war from various parts of the Asia-Pacific and became the driving force behind Japan’s postwar reconstruction; the fact that nearly three thousand Japanese children left behind in China were able to grow up there and set foot on the soil of their homeland again.” Then, Abe expressed willingness to the neighboring countries indirectly to seek the reconciliation on history issues. He said: “Thanks to such manifestation of tolerance, Japan was able to return to the international community in the postwar era. Taking this opportunity of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Japan would like to express its heartfelt gratitude to all the nations and all the people who made every effort for reconciliation.” In addition, Abe also said “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” It reflects the urgency, even boredom and impatience for Japanese government in seeking historical reconciliation.

The last part is a look into the future. Abe stressed that “With deep repentance for the war”, Japan had “consistently upheld that pledge never to wage a war again” and taken the road of peaceful development since WWII. Meanwhile, Japan would assume the international responsibility to help the developing countries and promote world economic prosperity and human rights, the rule of law, respect for women’s rights and other important values. Furthermore, he also pledged to abandon the use of force as an instrument of settling international disputes. In addition, Japan would no longer be a challenger to the international order, but “hoist the flag of ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace,’ and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world more than ever before. ”

Seen from the contents of “Abe’s speech”, it basically responds to the major concerns of the neighboring countries and seems to ease the tensions in East Asia caused by history recognitions. However, “Abe’s speech” cannot solve the problem, because it didn’t make a convincing commitment on the history issues. In contrast, “Abe’s speech” has taken paradoxical expressions on many critical issues. For example, when talking about the background and the reason of Japanese aggression war, it mainly analyzed the factors from the external environment, such as the impacts of the 1930 economic crisis, but not the Japanese domestic factors. Actually, Japanese militarism thoughts and expansionist policies were the fundamental reason. Compared with “Murayama’s speech”, this is a significant setback. “Murayama’s speech” clearly demonstrated that Japan launched a war of aggression because of “national policy error”.  To a large extent, Abe’s speech is a product of contradiction. It uses the key words like “aggression” and “apology” as the previous Japan’s Cabinets did before, but it doesn’t reflect the history thoroughly and comprehensively. On some critical issues, it even gives distorted explanations. The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor pointed out the main reasons for the ambiguity of “Abe’s speech”, noting that it was Abe endeavor to appease his nationalist supporters at home, while seeking to avoid further angering China and South Korea. [4]

Obviously, the speech inevitably cannot be accepted by most Asian countries. On the same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement that “as the international community marks the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Second World War, Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle.”[5] According to Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency, the ruling Saenuri Party said Abe’s statement was “disappointing”. “The statement today expressed remorse and apology in past tense, rather than in direct reference,” said Kim Young-woo, the party’s spokesman. “Rather than getting caught up in wordy and ambiguous expressions, we will continue to press Japan to put in practical efforts for sincere remorse over its past and for peace.”[6] The South Korean foreign ministry stated that “Japanese leaders can only earn trust from neighboring countries and the international community when they show with sincere acts their reflection and remorse.” President Park Geun-hye said in a speech that Abe’s statement “left much to be desired”.[7] On August 16, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement, saying “Singapore has not forgotten the horrors and suffering of World War II. Singapore’s position is that Japan should accept clear responsibility for the war.”

Although “Abe’s speech” has not abandoned the original basic position of previous Japanese cabinets, it has reservations on some key points, and there is conflict between specific behaviors and what is implicit in the speech. For example, the day after the speech, Abe sent a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and several cabinet members openly visited the Yasukuni Shrine the same day. This lack of historical awareness has become one of the main obstacles for East Asian countries to promote their relations. At the time of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, if the Japanese government still cannot make a sincere reflection on its wartime history, it will bring new pain for the victims of its aggression as well as the heavy burden for Japan itself.

It is worth mentioning that the memory of Japanese aggression history in some Asian countries and the United States seems to gradually fade, which is one of the important reasons for the Japanese revisionist’ behavior. According to a Pew Research Center poll released in August 2013, while the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia were also occupied by Japan during World War II, the memory in those countries appeared less powerful. 47% of the Philippines’ respondents said Japan needed to apologize more, whereas 48% said no request for forgiveness was necessary or that Japan had sufficiently apologized. 35% of Indonesian respondents believed Japan had sufficiently apologized or no apology is necessary, while 40% said more apology is needed; 30% of Malaysia’s respondents said Japan needed to apologize more, 32% believed Japan had sufficiently apologized or no apology is needed; 55% of Australian respondents believed there was enough apology or no apology necessary, 30% said there was not enough apology. In contrast, the Chinese (78%) and the Koreans (98%) believed Japan has not sufficiently apologized for its military actions during the 1930s and 1940s. [8] A poll released by the Pew Research Center in April 2015 showed that 37% of Americans believed that Japan had sufficiently apologized and 24% said no apology needed, while 29% said Japan needed to apologize more. In Japan, 48% of respondents believed that there has been sufficient apology and 15% said no apology is necessary, while 28% said that there was not enough apology, the same result as the poll showed in 2013. [9]From this perspective, it needs not only positive actions taken by people with visions in Japan and the efforts from China and South Korea to urge Japan to adopt correct reading of history, but also the efforts of other Asian countries, and even the entire international community.


[1] Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, “Japan revisionists deny WW2 sex slave atrocities,” 3 August 2015,

[2] “Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, ”August 14, 2015,

[3] “Ex-PM Murayama lashes out at Abe’s war statement as lacking clarity,”

[4] Anna Fifield, “Japan’s leader stops short of WWII apology,”; Justin McCurry, “For Japan’s Abe, a delicate balancing act in expressing ‘profound grief’ for WWII,” Aug 14, 2015,

[5] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Remarks on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Statement on the 70th Anniversary of the End of the War,” 15 Aug, 2015,

[6] “S. Koreans ‘disappointed’ with rhetoric, absence of new apology in Abe statement”,

[7] “Park says Abe’s war-end speech left ‘much to be desired’,” Aug 15,2015,

[8] Bruce Drake, “Decades after war’s end, some of Japan’s neighbors still see need for atonement,” Aug 15, 2013,

[9] “Americans, Japanese: Mutual Respect 70 Years After the End of WWII,”Apr 7, 2015,

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