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For Japan's Abe, a delicate balancing act in expressing 'profound grief' for WWII

The Japanese prime minister has China and South Korea as an audience – but also his conservative base.

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People watch Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a screen as he gives a statement in Tokyo Aug. 14, 2015.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

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As he began working his way through his long-awaited speech marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did as many had predicted, expressing “profound grief” over the loss of life and “sincere condolences” to the victims.

But sorry, it seemed, was still the hardest word.

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Ever since he announced plans to issue a new war statement rather than stick to the template created 20 years ago by the then-socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, Mr. Abe has had to balance the expectations of Japan’s former victims with those on the right of his party who make up his support base.

Abe did not offer a fresh apology for his country's wartime brutality and atrocities. He acknowledged that Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” on countries in Asia, notably in China and on the Korean peninsula, where the scars of Japanese occupation and colonialism have yet to heal. But he also underscored, as he has before, how much Japan has evolved in the seven decades since the war.

In what at times appeared to be an apology to his own people for their past suffering, he said: "On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.

"We have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbors: those in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and China, among others.”

Beijing and Seoul made it clear that they expected a verbatim repeat of former Prime Minister Murayama’s words, or at the very least a new, equally forthright apology. Abe’s political allies at home, on the other hand, expected him to end Japan’s “masochistic” postwar culture of contrition.

In the end, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s clumsily worded speculation earlier this week that the statement would “use expressions that can be perceived by neighbors that Japan apologizes,” wasn’t too wide of the mark.

As the Yomiuri suggested, what Abe's audience got was an attempt to occupy the middle ground. Realistically, it was about as far as a conservative leader like Abe could go without alienating his domestic power base.

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“Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war,” he said. “Such positions articulated by previous cabinets will remain unshakeable in the future.”

That contrasts with the original 1995 statement, in which Murayama said Japan, “through its colonial rule and aggression,” had caused untold suffering in Asia, for which he expressed “my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.”

But to focus on the omission of a fresh apology would be to ignore Abe’s main purpose in issuing a new statement: to highlight Japan’s peaceful contribution to the world in the seven decades since the war.

In pointing to Japan’s postwar embrace of democracy, and its commitment to freedom and the rule of law, he was not just taking a swipe at China – he was also giving notice that this year’s war commemorations, which will end with a ceremony in Tokyo on Saturday, should mark a clean break with the past in the Japanese psyche.

As he said in perhaps the most pointed sentence in the entire statement: “In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed 80 percent of its population. 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.”