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Prime Minister Abe Wants Japan To Cast Off Post-War Guilt


Seventy years ago this Saturday, Japan surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II. And unlike Germany and Europe, Japan and its neighbors often differ on Japan's role in the war. Asia is watching closely to see what Japan's prime minister says about the anniversary this week. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo about the difficulty of laying the World War II issue to rest.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has for years outlined his vision of a country that has gotten over its wartime guilt and has reemerged as Asia's preeminent power. But Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, says that tomorrow, Japan's neighbors will be expecting some kind of apology for its actions in World War II.

JEFF KINGSTON: He has a lot of pressure on him to deliver. But it goes against his core beliefs. He doesn't really think he needs to apologize.

KUHN: Indeed, several of Abe's predecessors have already done that. Twenty years ago, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressed deep remorse for the country's wartime aggression. But Kingston says that's not how Abe feels.

KINGSTON: He has been in politics since 1993. And everything he has done has been trying to undermine the Murayama statement, to marginalize it.

KUHN: Yoshiki Mine, director of the Institute for Peaceful Diplomacy in Tokyo, says Abe and many Japanese feel that the leaders of China and North and South Korea won't accept Japan's apology in order to score points with their domestic audiences.

YOSHIKI MINE: No matter how many times and how strongly we make apology, still they are making political use of this. Therefore, there will be endless repetition of making apologies.

KUHN: And, he notes, Abe is not above playing the nationalist card himself.

MINE: And to some extent, we need it. We were so many times criticized by the Chinese, by the Koreans, and the Japanese are now getting fed up.

KUHN: Abe may express remorse. Or he may send a mixed message and include some unapologetic language as well. Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano says that any apology Abe makes to Beijing or Seoul will primarily be a concession to its main ally, Washington.

KOICHI NAKANO: To make it a success, it has to be acceptable to the U.S. first and then maybe to China. And they don't really think that much about South Korea.

KUHN: Washington would, of course, like to see its allies Tokyo and Seoul on the same page and not bicker over history. At home, Abe's approval ratings have slumped in recent weeks to below 40 percent. That's mostly because he tried to ram an unpopular security bill through Parliament that would lift constitutional restrictions on Japan's military. Koichi Nakano says the security bill is separate from the historical issue, but the connection between them is clear to many Japanese.

NAKANO: If this government is incapable of clearly stating the responsibilities and where the government went wrong in the last war, 70 years ago, how on Earth can we expect them to make the right decision this time?

KUHN: Temple University's Jeff Kingston is hopeful that East Asian leaders will find a way to compromise on the historical issue.

KINGSTON: We're going to see over the next few months whether in fact the leaders can be statesmen and stop playing the history card and stop listening to the self-righteous nationalist voices.

KUHN: Japan's Cabinet is expected to approve Abe's statement tomorrow, before he delivers it. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.