Accepting Japan at Its Word

TOKYO – In recent years, the number of tourists visiting Japan has been increasing rapidly, reaching a record 13.4 million last year, a 29% increase from 2013. Japan seems to be making great strides toward its goal of recapturing the position as an Asian cultural center that it held a century ago, when the Indian Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore lived in Tokyo. Chinese revolutionary leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, along with many other prominent Asians, moved there as well.

Anyone visiting Japan today would do well to learn two key words: domo, meaning “hello,” “thanks,” or “well,” and sumimasen, which can carry any of the meanings of domo, as well as “sorry” or “excuse me.” Ordinary Japanese say sumimasen countless times each day, to apologize to friends or strangers for even the most trivial accident or mistake. But, as Japan’s leaders have experienced firsthand since World War II, expressing regret to other countries is not so simple.

Yet that is precisely what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must do in his upcoming statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. The statement will be based on consultations with many of Japan’s, and the world’s, leading WWII historians, as well as – and more important – with himself, his conscience, and his heart, because he understands the significance of his words on this highly fraught topic.

Of course, Abe is far from the first Japanese leader to confront this challenge. His statement will follow a long line of declarations by prime ministers and chief cabinet secretaries expressing sincere remorse over the events of WWII. Twenty years ago, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, the head of the Socialist Party, acknowledged that “Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries,” particularly in Asia. He went on to express “feelings of deep remorse” and offer a “heartfelt apology” to the victims.