TOKYO — In a year that marks the 70th anniversary of World War II's end, a question weighs on the minds of policymakers in Asia and as far away as Washington, D.C.: What will Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe say about his country's role in the war?
At a year-opening news conference Monday, he sought to reassure the world that he wouldn't veer from past official statements on Japan's wartime responsibility. Many analysts have speculated that Abe, known for his nationalist views, might downplay Japan's responsibility for the war in a move that would roil relations with China and South Korea.
"The Abe Cabinet will uphold the general stance on history of successive prime ministers, including the Murayama statement," he said, referring to a 1995 apology made by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the 50th anniversary of the war's end.
He said the government would draft a new statement "that includes Japan's remorse for the war," though he stopped short of saying it would again apologize. Abe spoke to reporters in the city of Ise after visiting an important Shinto shrine there.
The statement is expected to be issued around the anniversary of the end of the war on Aug. 15.
Seventy years on, the scars of World War II still poison relations in Asia, particularly between Japan and nearby China and South Korea, both victims of Japan's wartime aggression. Commemorative events will be held around the world, but here it's not just about remembering the past. The tenor of the events and the specific words chosen by leaders in each country will have current-day implications for Japan's still strained relations with its neighbors.
That prospect worries the U.S. government, which fears more tensions at a time when China's emergence as a military power is shifting the power balance in a region where the U.S. military has long dominated the seas.
"We encourage Japan to continue to work with its neighbors to resolve concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
She said the apologies Japan made in the 1990's over its wartime conduct had marked important chapters in its efforts to improve relations with its neighbors.
The liberal Asahi newspaper devoted a recent editorial to the statement, saying Abe needs to face up to Japan's war responsibility.
"If ... Japan starts talking about the future without seriously facing up to its past, countries that suffered from Japan's wartime behavior could start wondering if the Japanese are saying, 'Let's forget the past,'" it wrote.
Analysts said it's too early to predict what Abe will say seven months from now. While he may not revise the Murayama statement, he can still undermine it, said Koichi Nakano, a liberal professor of contemporary politics at Sophia University in Tokyo.
"There has been growing concern that Abe might try to effectively overwrite the Murayama statement with the 'Abe statement,'" he said.
Emperor Akihito, in his annual New Year's message, also stressed the need to remember the past.
"So many people lost their lives in this war," he said in a statement. "I think it is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of our country."
The proof, China says, will lie in Japan's actions.
"We hope Japan can match its words, honestly facing up to its history of aggression, (and) abide by all the solemn statements and promises it has made on the issue of history," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.
1995 Murayama statement: www.mofa.go.jp/announce/press/pm/murayama/9508.html
Associated Press videojournalist Kaori Hitomi in Tokyo, news assistant Yu Bing in Beijing and writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this story.