The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Historical Reconciliation Revisited: The Abe Statement and the Way Forward

February 7, 2017

Pedestrians in Tokyo walk past a screen showing a live broadcast of Prime Minister Abe delivering his WWII anniversary statement on August 14, 2015. © Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Pedestrians in Tokyo walk past a screen showing a live broadcast of Prime Minister Abe delivering his WWII anniversary statement on August 14, 2015. © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In August 2016, one year after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s historic statement commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, members of the Tokyo Foundation Political and Diplomatic Review project gathered to assess the significance of the Abe Statement, its reception at home and abroad, and its implications for international relations going forward.

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YUICHI HOSOYA: I’d like to start out by reviewing the Japanese media’s response to the Abe Statement, released on August 14, 2015, to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Of the national newspapers, the Yomiuri Shimbun reacted the most favorably. It began its August 15 editorial by suggesting that the statement deserved “a positive assessment for clearly indicating a new course for Japan predicated on remorse for World War II.” The Nihon Keizai Shimbun also gave the statement fairly high marks. Interestingly, it compared the Abe Statement favorably with the statement issued by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995. According to the Nikkei , Abe spelled out more clearly how the nation went astray and what errors we need to reflect on, whereas the Murayama Statement merely noted that “during a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war.”


The statement received less favorable reviews in the Sankei Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun , and Asahi Shimbun . Each in its own way critiqued the statement ideologically and found it wanting. The Sankei , consistent with its rightwing slant, argued that Japan should stop caving in to outside pressure to apologize for past behavior. The Asahi and Mainichi , by contrast, would have preferred a more leftist interpretation of history. The Asahi was by far the most outspoken in its criticism, arguing that the 1995 Murayama Statement was vastly superior, an assessment echoed by former Prime Minister Murayama himself. In its editorial, the Asahi even questioned why Abe should have issued a new statement under the circumstances.

Certainly from the standpoint of repairing relations with China and South Korea and strengthening ties with the United States, it would not have sufficed for Abe simply to reaffirm the Murayama Statement. Abe had already made it clear in a press conference at the beginning of 2015 that he intended to uphold the position articulated in the Murayama Statement and affirmed by subsequent cabinets. Simply to state that his government supported the Murayama statement would have rung hollow. I think it was essential for Abe to issue a new statement that added something of his own and took into account the current state of international affairs.

In fact, the two papers that gave positive marks to Abe, the Yomiuri and the Nikkei , stressed the contribution the statement could make to improved relations with our neighbors and with the United States. So, I’d like to hear your views on that, in addition to your take on similarities and differences between Abe’s statement and Murayama’s.

Continuity and Change

SHIN KAWASHIMA: Since 1995, we’ve seen a number of statements by the prime minister expressing remorse for Japan’s actions before and during World War II. In addition to Murayama, Jun’ichiro Koizumi issued a statement on the anniversary of the war’s end, and Prime Minister s Kiichi Miyazawa and Naoto Kan delivered statements directed toward South Korea specifically. I think that merely by adopting the same format, Abe was implicitly affirming the continuity between the Murayama and Koizumi statements and his own. In addition, he explicitly acknowledged that continuity by saying that the “position articulated by previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.” It’s quite clear that he used the Murayama and Koizumi statements as templates. In this sense, the Abe Statement is a direct heir to previous statements.


At the same time, the Abe Statement distinguishes itself from its predecessors in several key respects. One is that it adopts a broader and more nuanced historical outlook. Previous statements are rooted in the idea that Japan was completely reborn after World War II. They divide modern Japanese history sharply into two periods, prewar and postwar, rejecting the former and affirming the latter. But the Abe Statement traces Japan’s error more specifically to the late 1920s and early 1930s. It’s based on the historical viewpoint that modern Japan was following a fundamentally sound course until it took a series of wrong turns centering on the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. This has drawn criticism from Koreans and others who point to Japanese colonialism and expansionism going back to the Meiji era. But in any case, it’s a significant difference between the Abe Statement and previous statements.

The second distinguishing feature of the Abe Statement is the way it reflects current concerns about the international situation and the Abe administration’s security policies and other priorities. One instance of this occurs toward the end, where Abe says, “We will engrave on our hearts the past, when modern Japan ended up becoming a challenger to the international order,” instead of supporting and contributing to that order, the way it has throughout the postwar era. Of course, this can be taken simply as a way of stressing Japan’s commitment to the existing world order at a time of profound change. But it's also an indirect criticism of any country that would presume to challenge that order.

We also see indirect references to specific policy initiatives of the Abe administration. For example, the statement twice mentions the perils of forming economic blocs and emphasizes Japan’s commitment to international rules predicated on the principle of free trade. This can be taken as an allusion to concerns over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major economic policy goal for this cabinet. Similarly, when Abe declares that “Japan will continue to firmly uphold the principle that any disputes must be settled peacefully and diplomatically based on the respect for the rule of law and not through the use of force,” he appears to be offering reassurance regarding his cabinet’s new security legislation. In this way, the Abe Statement’s assurances that Japan will never abandon its basic postwar principles can be read as references to the current cabinet’s own trade and security initiatives. This is something we didn’t see in the Murayama Statement.

A third point pertains to the concept of reconciliation. Both the Murayama Statement and the Abe Statement suggest a desire for reconciliation. But the Abe Statement penetrates to the meat of that concept. On the one hand, it says, “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.” The media, both in Japan and overseas, have been quick to take this out of context and criticize Abe for saying that it’s time to forget about the war. But Abe makes it very clear in what follows that that is not his intent, continuing, “We Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.” This is all based on the concept of reconciliation. The keys to reconciliation are facing up to the past, preserv ing these memories , and expressing gratitude for the forgiveness and tolerance of our neighbor s and former enemies, something Abe mentions repeatedly. In this way, the Abe Statement gets to the substance of reconciliation. In this context, it becomes clear what the prime minister means when he calls for us to get beyond the mere act of apologizing. To my mind, the most important feature of the Abe Statement is that it’s built around these keys to reconciliation.

But this brings us to a fourth point, which is a matter of concern to me. The Abe Statement doesn’t mention any follow-through measures for promoting reconciliation. The Murayama cabinet launched the Peace, Friendship, and Exchange Initiative in 1994, a year before the 1995 statement. The Japanese government ended up allocating substantial funding for this initiative, and it delivered some positive results. In our recommendations to Prime Minister Abe, the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century mentioned the need to sustain such efforts. As the Abe cabinet may continue for some time to come , we need to pay attention to how much the government is allocating for actual efforts toward reconciliation through nongovernmental exchange of various kinds.

One more point on which the Abe Statement stands out has to do with the matter of language. The Murayama Statement was originally released in Japanese only. It was later translated into English, but it was written mainly with an eye to the impact of the Japanese text. For the Abe Statement, the government prepared English, Korean, and Chinese versions and was clearly concerned about the wording of the translations . Furthermore, the Korean and Chinese versions were released by the Japanese embassies in Seoul and Beijing, respectively. The intent, I think, was to ensure that the translations put out by the Japanese government were the official versions, to forestall the production of unauthorized translations that diverged from the original, and to ensure that people overseas correctly understood the statement’s intent. In this sense, it displays a heightened sense of public diplomacy.

Broadening the Audience

JUN’YA NISHINO: I think that two of the characteristics you identified—the difference in historical perspective and the allusion to challenges facing the international order—can be attributed to a change in the target audience, particularly if we look at it in the context of Japan’s relations with South Korea.


While the Murayama and Koizumi statements were basically intended for East Asian consumption, Abe’s statement was directed more toward the international community as a whole, and the United States in particular. As a consequence, reactions to the statement tend to vary widely, depending on which audience you ask. For example, Mr. Hosoya noted that the Abe Statement reflects a new interpretation of history in that it views modern Japan as a constructive member of the international order prior to the Manchurian Incident. This interpretation is completely at odds with the South Korean view of Japanese imperialism, which extends to their view of the Russo-Japanese War. So, from the standpoint of Japan–South Korea relations, the Abe Statement accentuates the already substantial differences between Japanese and Korean perceptions of prewar history.

I think another way in which the Abe Statement stands out from earlier statements is in its inclusion of the phrase “proactive contribution to peace.” Koizumi’s statement talked about the need for Japan to contribute actively as a member of the international community, but the explicit incorporation of Abe’s pet phrase sekkyokuteki heiwashugi suggests to me that that was something the prime minister really wanted to stress in his statement.

As for the fourth difference Mr. Kawashima mentioned, I share your concerns about follow-through. Since the statement was released, I’m afraid we’ve seen little sign of any substantive measures. The report of the advisory panel points out the importance of further efforts in history education, joint historical research, and youth exchange, and I know you put a lot of effort into that section. The South Koreans, for their part, are quite interested in pursuing joint research. I think the Abe Statement would take on greater meaning if it were followed by concrete policies and funding.

Emphasis on Regional Order and Balance

TSUNEO WATANABE: It seems to me that a basic feature of the Abe Statement that doesn’t appear in the Murayama Statement—and this ties in with the reference to “proactive contribution to peace”—is realism in international affairs. There’s a special emphasis on the importance of maintaining the regional order and balance of power. When Abe stresses that we must “never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” he’s talking about all countries, not just Japan, and I think that’s an important point.


Today, of course, Japan is not the one posing a challenge to the existing world order. To the contrary, as a US ally, Japan is a defender of the existing order. This basic structure of international society is the premise behind Abe’s "proactive contribution to peace." The basic idea is to cooperate proactively to maintain stability in the region while upholding our fundamental policy of a strictly defensive military. Examples of a proactive contribution to peace might be coordinating with the United States and countries in the region to support capacity building in Southeast Asia, or to provide public goods to enhance regional maritime security. From my standpoint, Abe’s biggest departure from previous statements lies in the fact that he articulates the kind of role Japan means to play in the Asia-Pacific international order going forward.

It’s not going to be easy to get South Korea to accept the idea of Japan as a proactive contributor to regional security, given public sentiment in that country. Attitudes toward Japan in South Korea are closely tied to historical perceptions. In 1920, Japan joined the League of Nations as a permanent member of the League Council and helped to maintain the world order after World War I. But a decade prior to that, in 1910, it annexed Korea. At the time, such conduct was tolerated by other nations as consistent with maintenance of the international order, but it certainly isn’t tolerated today, and from the standpoint of the people whose country was annexed, it’s insupportable. Given the importance of our relationship with South Korea, it seems to me that we need to deal very sensitively with such historical perceptions, particularly when we’re trying to gain support for a more “proactive contribution to peace.” I agree as to the difficulty and the importance of getting South Korea to accept Japan’s apologies.

Visiting Japan in March 2015, prior to Abe’s speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was asked how she thought Japan could achieve reconciliation with its neighbors. She noted that Germany had faced up to its past, but she also emphasized that reconciliation with Europe had only been possible thanks to the tolerance and forgiveness of Germany’s neighbors. The implication is that, however difficult it may be for South Korea to forgive Japan’s actions, that willingness to forgive is just as important as Japan’s willingness to apologize. I think that South Korea and China have tended to view postwar Germany’s actions and policies toward its neighbors as a kind of model for Japan to follow in terms of apologizing and so forth. Merkel’s statement got to the essence of the reconciliation problem by underscoring that the attitude of the party receiving the apology is one of the keys. It highlighted the need for tough decisions on South Korea’s part as well. I think this reveals an understanding that South Korea faces even bigger challenges than Japan does when it comes to achieving reconciliation, because Seoul has to navigate the treacherous waters of national sentiment, which continues to reject Japan’s overtures.

Three Elements of Reconciliation

HOSOYA: I think you’ve made a very important point. It seems to me that you can see shades of Merkel in Abe’s statement when he talks about the spirit of tolerance that allowed Japan to return to the international community. This is Abe’s way of echoing Merkel’s point that there are two basic conditions for historical reconciliation: that the aggressor face s up to its past and that the victim display s a spirit of forgiveness. In that sense, I think Merkel’s March 2015 speech in Tokyo had a bigger impact on Abe than anyone anticipated. That’s why, both in his April 2015 address to the US Congress and in his August statement, he expressed Japan’s gratitude to countries like the United States, Australia, and Britain for accepting our attempts at reconciliation.

Historical culpability encompasses three issues, and we have to look at all three. There’s the issue of human-rights violations, there’s the issue of war responsibility, and then there’s the issue of colonial rule. These are fairly distinct issues, yet they tend to be lumped together and discussed interchangeably, and I think that complicates efforts to find common ground vis-à-vis perceptions of history.


In the case of Europe, the issue of human rights has played the dominant role in postwar history. After World War II, the main focus of Germany’s atonement was not its responsibility for the war but the human-rights issue of the Holocaust. About 6 million of Europe’s 9 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Grappling with such an unprecedented crime against humanity was the most difficult and pressing challenge for Germany from the standpoint of historical reconciliation.

When it came to war crimes, things were not quite as clear-cut. Germany itself has pointed to transgressions on the side of the Allies. The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 killed tens of thousands of civilians. Casualties from the Tokyo firebombing numbered in the hundreds of thousands. So, while Germany has apologized sincerely for the war and its aggression, as well as for its violation of human rights, the two aren’t equivalent in their gravity.

Colonialism, which is a major issue between Japan and South Korea, doesn’t figure very prominently in historical reconciliation in Europe, since Germany had almost no colonies. If anyone in Europe were to apologize for that, it would have to be Britain and France, not Germany. But Britain and France were the victors, so there was no need for them to apologize. Furthermore, there was considerable disagreement within the Allied camp regarding the application of the Atlantic Charter to Britain and its colonies. It’s very difficult to apply any of this to relations between Japan, which lost the war, and Korea, which achieved independence upon Japan’s surrender.

Some people believe that former colonial powers should apologize for colonial rule on the basis of universal values. But if you consider the long history of British and French colonialism, you can understand why it might not be so easy for the international community to reach such a conclusion. Compared with human rights violations or even war responsibility, culpability for colonial rule is a complex and tricky question, and the international community today is by no means agreed on how to deal with it.

By contrast, South Korea has generated widespread international sympathy for its charges that the Imperial Army violated the rights of women through its use of Korean “comfort women” ( ianfu ). Where war responsibility is concerned, there is widespread feeling that Japan violated international law with its aggression in Asia beginning in 1931. But in Europe, at any rate, it’s harder to drum up sympathy for South Korea’s position on the Russo-Japanese War, which the Koreans see as the beginning of Japan’s campaign to colonize the the Korean Peninsula. That occurred at a time when the major European powers were still battling one another for colonial expansion, and it’s not self-evident to Europeans that one needs to apologize for participating in that.

In Japan, there’s a tendency to view the world dualistically, dividing it into Western and Eastern civilization. But from the standpoint of the peoples subjected to colonial rule, it made little difference to which race or civilization their rulers belonged. Such distinctions were trivial compared with their own desire for independence.

In short, when we look at the three categories of historical culpability—human rights, war responsibility, and colonialism—it’s clear that, in the international context, colonialism is the most difficult one to deal with, for all the reasons I’ve given. So, we have to recognize that where this issue is concerned, our perception gap with South Korea pertains to a complex issue, even from the standpoint of world history. We need to address each of these categories assiduously, but among them, it seems to me that the issue of colonialism is bound to be the most difficult to deal with and the most apt to spark disagreement.

Historical Perspective and Diplomacy

HOSOYA: We also need to understand that one of the reasons the Abe Statement has received so much attention is that historical interpretation is a major flashpoint in international relations today. As Masataka Kosaka pointed out in his classic work on international politics, our views of history reflect our value system. And the values we embrace are inextricably tied to our identity as a nation. This means we can’t underestimate the importance of historical issues. Japan’s postwar security policy is closely linked to our own experience and perception of World War II. So, even from the standpoint of international politics as an academic discipline, we can see how issues of historical interpretation can play an important role in international politics, particularly in the context of recent trends in foreign relations.

When people on either side of the political spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, take an absolute view of right and wrong, it leads to conflict both domestically and internationally. The key is understanding and respecting the viewpoints of others and searching for common ground. It’s more important than ever in today’s world that we seek out common ground, both domestically and internationally, and identify meeting points where compromise is possible, not merely on economic and security issues but also on matters pertaining to values, including views of history.

With all the tensions that pervade the Asian region today, there is still room for compromise, and people are working hard to minimize the potential for clashes. Still, this is a very fragile sort of stability , much will depend on whether we can transform it into a more robust regional harmony.


    • Project Member, Political and Diplomatic Review
      Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo
    • Shin Kawashima
    • Shin Kawashima
    • Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Keio University
    • Jun’ya Nishino
    • Jun’ya Nishino
    • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation
    • Tsuneo Watanabe
    • Tsuneo Watanabe
    • 細谷 雄一/Yuichi Hosoya }
    • Former Research Director
    • Yuichi Hosoya
    • Yuichi Hosoya
    Areas of Expertise
    • Political science
    • theory and history of international relations
    • contemporary European history
    Research Program

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