18 February 2019
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe carries a wreath at a ceremony mourning the victims of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki. Credit: AFP
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe carries a wreath at a ceremony mourning the victims of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki. Credit: AFP

What Abe really said in his World War II anniversary speech

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a landmark speech last Friday on the 70th anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender at the end of World War II. The original script in Japanese and its English translation were first released through official channels, and the Korean and Chinese versions didn’t come out until before the midnight.

From this arrangement we know that Japanese citizens and the Western World, particularly the United States, were the intended audience in the first place.

The elaborately choreographed move allows various interpretations, but Abe still managed to set the tone, which is also the official historical perspective of the Japanese government.

The perspective boils down to this: throughout the decades since the mid-19th century when Western powers began colonizing most parts of Eastern Asia (including Southeastern Asia), Japan also suffered from invasion and warfare. However, the country not only “preserved its independence” but also acted as a leading light in resisting colonialism.

Tokyo’s victory in the Japan-Russia War (1904-1905), in particular, “gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa”, the leader argues.

In Abe’s words, Japan was at the receiving end of invasion and bullying until the Manchurian Incident in 1931, which is marked by Beijing as the official start of Japanese invasion of China.

Abe’s view is just the opposite to what mainlanders think, as the Chinese are instilled by Beijing’s history textbooks that Japan was a through, ferocious invader, an imperialist power that must not be forgiven. Interestingly, they seldom regard Russia as a member of the evil powers, thanks to Beijing’s Communist alliance with Moscow.

More importantly, we need to read between the lines: Abe has hinted in the speech that Japan was “sinless” before the Manchurian Incident and thus, the 1894 war between Japan and the Qing dynasty (also known as the First Sino-Japanese War) and the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed in the following year when Taiwan was ceded to Japan, were all just and beyond any reproach.

As for his own constituents, Abe has underscored the point that “the postwar generations now exceed 80 percent of its population. 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.” What he means here is that Japan has apologized repeatedly in the past and that is enough.

Now Abe has stated the point not only for himself but also for future generations.

Japanese people, especially the young generations, have already become fed up with Beijing and Seoul’s attitude of historical entitlement when it comes to Japan’s war crimes. And they think the two countries simply ignore Japan’s generous economic aid and its contributions to the world after the war. Thus, Abe’s speech struck a chord among them.

In common law jurisdictions, there’s no such mindset that when a man dies, his debts are to be repaid by his son. That’s why Washington and its allies have found nothing wrong with Abe’s disclaimer that frees Japan’s future generations from war responsibility.

The significance here is that the US itself made great sacrifice for the war against Japan in terms of casualties and losses and so when Washington responds positively, the entire Western World will be of the same view.

Abe, born in 1954, was a member of the “postwar generation” thus it’s quite natural for him to have such a detached attitude, as his predecessors had apologized a number of times already.

Feedback from Taiwan is also what Abe expects: Taiwan’s leader Ma Ying-jeou simply demands Tokyo fulfill its pledges and nothing more, after Abe gave a specific reference to Taiwan alongside with China.

China’s resistance of Japanese invasion was indeed led by Kuomintang and the army of the Republic of China. The war had little to do with the Chinese Communist Party. Thus when Taiwan indicates it has nothing to disagree, the voice is without doubt more authoritative than Beijing’s.

So far Beijing and Seoul have been dwelling on rather subjective concepts like whether Abe is sincere with his apology, overlooking some more concrete points like Abe’s “disclaimer” for future generations. Obviously the pair has lost a vital round.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 17.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Japan’s national memorial ceremony for the war dead was held in Tokyo last Saturday. Credit: Cabinet Public Relations Office of Japan

Abe bows at the ceremony. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are seen in the background. Photo: Reuters

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe