The Second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, was a truly global conflict. The states of Western Europe, along with their colonies in Africa and Asia, and the United States, went to war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Though Japan was victim to the single most destructive act in history – the American nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the government has offered an apology – of sorts. In a statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the 70th anniversary of his country’s surrender, ‘profound grief’ was expressed, as he promised that Japan would “never again repeat the devastation of war”. Shinzo Abe admitted that Japan had brought “lots of suffering to innocent people” – but stopped short of the details. It was carefully worded.
In reference of the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Prime Minister did not rebuke the United States. In fact, Shinzo Abe merely chose to use it to burnish Japan’s credentials as a nation committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons. The dispassionate way in which the nuclear attacks were mentioned is indicative of Japan’s global strategy. The speech sought to apologise to its former opponents, but only those with whom it seeks closer relations. The United States rebuilt Japan in its image after the Second World War, turning a devastated country into one which is now the third largest economy on the planet. The link between the two countries is beyond the parameters of a ‘special relationship’. The US even got ‘repentance‘ three months ago.
The Japanese prime minister did not offer specific apologies for the actions of Japan in the past. In the history of Japanese conflict and military aggression, the acts of the Second World War were a mere flash in the pan. The brutal history of Japan’s imperial conquests had made for much more inhumane crimes. From 1868 to the end of the Second World War, the Japanese controlled an empire that spanned the Asia-Pacific region. Korea was occupied in 1905, and, taking advantage of China’s division, the Japanese seized Manchuria, and installed a puppet leader in 1932, all the while launching military incursions and attacks across China. The psychological scars of brutalisation by Japanese troops (such as the use of ‘comfort women‘) remain to this day. China claims that 20 million of its people were killed as a result. North Korea has even changed its time-zone in an effort to distance itself from the memory of the Japanese occupation.
The controversy lies not in the act, but in the content. Very few would suggest that the current Japanese government has a need to ‘express regret’ for past atrocities committed, as these were not under its rule. However, the fact is that it has been. For many in China and the Koreas, it did not go far enough. The legacy of Japan’s former aggression stretches back far beyond the theatre of the Second World War. The states of the Asia-Pacific were left in political turmoil. Korea was vulnerable to being carved in twain between the forces of the East and West. The political vacuums in many of these states allowed for decades of war, and brutal military dictatorships. Vietnam is only one such example. Without explicit acknowledgement and apology to its former colonies and the crimes committed under the flag of the Rising Sun, what is it actually worth?