TOKYO — A panel of experts appointed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met for the first time Wednesday to discuss what he should say in a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, fueling speculation that he may water down previous government apologies for the country's wartime past.
Japan issued a landmark apology on the 50th anniversary in 1995 under then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, for the first time acknowledging its colonization and aggression in parts of Asia before and during the war. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also apologized.
A key question is whether Abe will use the same terms such as "colonial rule" and "aggression" in his statement.
Abe appointed the 16-member panel — 10 academics, three business leaders, two journalists and an international aid worker — to seek advice on what he should say on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the war's end.
Abe told the panel he hopes to get their views on what Japan has learned from the past, how Japan has contributed to international peace in the postwar era and what Japan's regional and international contribution should be in the future. He did not refer to the apology, and panel members said they are not bound by the specific words used in past statements.
Abe, who took office in late 2012, initially signaled his intention to revise the 1995 apology, triggering criticism from China and South Korea. He now says his Cabinet stands by the apology, but that he wants to issue a more forward-looking statement, raising speculation that he will somehow water it down.
"A 70th anniversary statement issued by the prime minister has a highly political and diplomatic meaning, and we must take that into consideration," said international politics professor Shinichi Kitaoka, deputy head of the panel and one of Abe's favorite academics. He said the panel will suggest possible elements for the statement and will not decide exactly what Abe will say.
About one-third of the panel members are regulars on Abe's policy advisory committees, like Kitaoka, though they exclude his associates with the most extreme right-wing views. The appointment of centrist Asia experts Takashi Shiraishi and Shin Kawashima and a journalist from the liberal-leaning Mainichi newspaper give the panel some balance, but some other members stand out as historical revisionists.
Among them, Masashi Nishihara, head of a national security think tank, has written that reports of the Japanese military's use of sex slaves during the war are "fabricated in South Korea." Entrepreneur Yoshito Hori says the war was one of self-defense, not aggression.
China and South Korea have sent warnings on the statement. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at a U.N. public debate, warned against attempts to "whitewash past crimes of aggression." In Seoul, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Abe's statement should not backpedal from past apologies.
The United States has raised concerns over Tokyo's row with the two neighbors over its wartime history.
The debate over the statement reflects a simmering divide in Japan 70 years after the war.
On one side are those who say that accounts of Japanese wartime atrocities are false or exaggerated, and that it's time to restore Japanese pride in their country. On the other are liberal defenders of Japan's Constitution who don't want the country to forget its colonization of Korea and invasion of China and Southeast Asia, and the disaster they spawned.
Senior ruling party lawmaker Masahiko Komura told reporters before the meeting Wednesday that a more forward-looking statement would sound convincing if it clearly states Japan's adherence to past apologies.
50th anniversary statement: www.mofa.go.jp/announce/press/pm/murayama/9508.html
60th anniversary statement: www.mofa.go.jp/announce/announce/2005/8/0815.html
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