This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, when Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the allied forces. Hirohito was never tried for warcrimes, despite many historians considering him responsible for the atrocities in China and Korea, and he continued his reign as a “figurehead” of Japan. His son, Emperor Akihito, ascended to the throne upon his death in 1989.
At a memorial service in Tokyo last week, Akihito gave the typical speech as heard in years passed when addressing the war, but he surprised journalists by using a word meaning “deep remorse”, a much stronger word than the usual “deep sorrow” that he had expressed in previous years.
“Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” he said during the ceremony, at which Empress Michiko and Prime Minister Shizo Abe were also present.
A Japanese journalist cited in a Washington Post report described the remarks as “unprecedented”, and it has been suggested that the emperor has shown a subtle opposition to Abe’s “aggressive form of pacifism” when it comes to commenting on the nation’s wartime past.
Beijing and Tokyo have long been at odds over the issue, as China has accused its rival nation of failing to atone for its wartime atrocities.
While Japanese leaders have long expressed “grief” over its actions in the war, they have fallen short of offering an apology. A speech given by Abe the day before, in which he gave his “sincere condolences” to Japan’s wartime victims, was no exception.
Abe also expressed in his speech that future generations should not have to burdened by saying sorry, while stressing upon Japan’s more recent pacifist record.
“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,” he said.
“Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past.”
The speech didn’t help to ease any lingering bitterness in China, as state-run media outlets argued that once again the “apology” failed to pass the “sincerity test.”
The subtle change of phrasing by 81-year-old Akihito, whose role has limited him to few words on such matters, has been seen as very heavily veiled criticism of Abe’s current leading.
“Seventy years have passed since the end of the war, and our country today enjoys peace and prosperity, thanks to the ceaseless efforts made by the people of Japan toward recovery from the devastation of the war and toward development, always backed by their earnest desire for the continuation of peace,” he continued during in Tokyo.
Takeshi Hara, a political scientist at Meiji Gakuin University, told the Post that the wording here was also surprising.
“He said clearly it was thanks to people’s conscious efforts. This is an expression not heard before,” Hara said. “I think it’s criticism of the more aggressive form of pacifism” that Abe is promoting.
Hara said the emperor appeared to be disagreeing with the logic of Abe and his advisers — that the deterrent effect of Japan’s alliance with the United States had kept it safe, and that the constitutional changes were needed to keep the alliance strong.
“The emperor is saying that’s not so, that the Japanese people themselves have consistently aspired for peace and that has reinforced the peace we have now,” Hara said. “I think this is a poignant criticism against the current administration.”
“I feel he’s trying to say as much as possible,” Yasushi Kuno, a veteran journalist said in an SCMP report, pointing out that the emperor may not live to see the 80th anniversary. “The emperor is telling everyone to remember the war and the people who were killed one more time, because people’s memories of the war are fading fast.”