Shinzo Abe ruled out speculation that his government might water down Japan's official apologies for aggression and the use of sex slaves during World War II. What's behind the shift in tone?
Only weeks after he cast doubt on claims that Japan waged a war of "aggression" on mainland Asia in the first half of the 20th century, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has moved to avert a possible dip in his country's already precarious ties with its neighbors by saying he had ruled out revisions to previous official apologies for Japan's wartime conduct.
Mr. Abe, who became prime minister for the second time in December, told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday: "We share the same recognition with past cabinets that Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to people in Asia."
The foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, was more explicit. He told reporters the government had "accepted the facts of history in a spirit of humility, expressed once again our feelings of deep remorse and our heartfelt apology, and expressed our feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad. And Prime Minister Abe shares the same view."
The references were to two landmark apologies made in the 1990s that have become the default settings for administrations in Tokyo when confronted with the perennially delicate subject of Japan's militarist past.
The first, issued by then-chief cabinet secretary in 1993, Yohei Kono, acknowledged Japan had forced tens of thousands of women – mostly Korean –into sexual slavery before and during World War II. In 1995, the then-socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, extended the scope of Japan's atonement: "Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly those of Asia," he said.
"In the hope that no such mistake will be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humanity, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology."
Abe had suggested he was ready to water down both apologies in an attempt to expunge what he sees as Japan's "masochistic" view of its wartime history.
The momentum for a revision seemed to gather last month when members of Abe's cabinet, including the finance minister, Taro Aso, visited Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including 14 convicted war criminals.
Abe did not take part in the most recent pilgrimage, but said it was "only natural" to honor the spirits of Japan's war dead, adding that his ministers would not "cave in to threats."
His remarks caused predictable outrage in Beijing and Seoul. South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye, in Washington for an official visit, accused Japan of reopening old wounds and urged it to "correct" its view of history.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Park said that "the Japanese have been opening past wounds and have been letting them fester, and this applies not only to Korea but also to other neighboring countries.... This arrests our ability to really build momentum, so I hope that Japan reflects upon itself."
Whether today's assurances from Tokyo amount to genuine reflection remains to be seen. One indication will come on the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War on Aug. 16, when some have speculated Abe will make his first visit to Yasukuni as Japan's leader – a gesture certain to please the war-bereaved families association, a powerful political lobby.
But there have been other discernible changes in tone, including Abe's criticism of anti-Korean demonstrations by rightwing extremists in Tokyo and Osaka.
Their foul-mouthed abuse of ethnic Korean populations, he said this week, does nothing but "dishonor Japan."
Diplomatic expediency aside, there is an important political calculation at play. Abe will believe he has secured his legacy only if he alters Japan's US-authored postwar Constitution to give its armed forces a more prominent role, namely, the right to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
Only by revising the Constitution, he has said, will Japan truly have thrown off the shackles of the postwar period and started to behave like a "normal" democracy.
In that he has support from the US, which is keen to share more of the regional defense burden with its ally. Washington, though, is less enamored of Abe's historical revisionism: Only last week, the former US ambassador to Tokyo, Thomas Schieffer, warned that any stepping back from the two war apologies risked unsettling US-Japan ties.
For Abe, it seems, honoring the spirit of Kono and Murayama's words of contrition is a sacrifice worth making if it means putting reform of Japan's supreme law within easier reach.