Lacking clear subject, Kishida’s personal expression of heartache fails to impress Korea

Posted on : 2023-05-09 16:45 KST Modified on : 2023-05-09 16:54 KST
A look at past statements by Japanese heads of state showed Kishida’s comment on Sunday to have fallen short of precedents for expressions of apology or remorse
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan speaks at a joint press conference with President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea following their summit in Seoul on May 7. (presidential office pool photo)
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan speaks at a joint press conference with President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea following their summit in Seoul on May 7. (presidential office pool photo)

During a press conference following the South Korea-Japan summit on Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed personal regret toward victims of forced labor during the Japanese colonial period instead of formally apologizing or showing remorse. This prompted observations that his gesture fell remarkably short of precedents set by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, the joint declaration by South Korea and Japan in 1998, and a statement by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2005.

The fact that previous statements in which Japanese leaders clearly apologized and expressed remorse about the past have been made obsolete by Japan’s rightward shift and a 2015 statement by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the purpose of which was to declare that Japan would not apologize to Korea any longer, played a role.

As a result, Kishida’s remark harked back to Japanese Emperor Akihito’s expression of “deepest regret” in the early 1990s, which denied Japan’s clear responsibility and merely gave voice to personal sentiments.

“My heart aches that many people went through extremely difficult and sad experiences under harsh circumstances at the time,” Kishida said regarding historical issues between Korea and Japan, such as the issue of forced labor during the Japanese colonial period. The comment was made during a joint press conference following the South Korea-Japan summit on Sunday and came with the caveat of being an expression of personal opinion.

Kishida failed to directly reference victims of forced labor and voiced his personal thoughts rather than his opinion as Japan’s prime minister.

“It’s unclear who Kishida’s statement is referring to,” said Sejong University professor and South Korea-Japan relations expert Yuji Hosaka, adding, “Because Japanese people also experienced hardship during World War [II], the statement can be considered as one encompassing Japanese people.”

“The subject was slyly omitted from the statement,” he pointed out.

Observers also say Kishida’s remark pales in comparison to past statements by Japanese prime ministers and chief Cabinet secretaries, who serve as the former’s spokesperson.

In a statement released in August 1993 during his tenure as Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono directly expressed apology and regret, stating, “The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

In October 1998, former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi officially documented Japan’s remorse and apology regarding colonialism through his joint declaration with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

Even Junichiro Koizumi, the former Japanese premier who received criticism from neighboring countries for paying his respects at Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals of the Pacific War are enshrined, made a statement in 2005 in which he said, “In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries. [. . .] I once again express my feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology.”

Some believe Kishida’s recent remark was a compromise he had to make as Japan’s prime minister, arguing that Kishida had limited options due to Japan’s intense rightward shift ever since his predecessor Murayama apologized for colonial domination and wars of aggression by Japan.

“While Japan would have thought it should support the Yoon Suk-yeol administration at least a little bit, considering the solution the South Korean government proposed [in March] regarding the forced labor issue received harsh criticism within South Korea, it seems to have refrained from using words like ‘apology’ and ‘remorse’ due to opposition from the far right in Japan, which is against apologizing for past affairs,” commented Kim Young-hwan, the head of external cooperation for the Center for Historical Truth and Justice.

Others say the fact that Kishida reiterated Japan’s existing position by stating he “will carry on the position of Japan’s Cabinet so far” during a press conference indicates that his statement doesn’t go beyond the statement made by Abe.

“If Kishida says he will carry on the existing position of the Japanese government, he will inevitably carry on the most recent statement Japan put out related to past affairs,” said Hosaka, referring to the statement by Abe.

“Kishida’s remark resembles that of former Prime Minister Abe, who said, ‘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,’” Hosaka added.

Meanwhile, another expert likened Kishida’s statement to that of Japanese Emperor Akihito in 1990.

Yang Ki-ho, a professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University, said, “Considering how vague Kishida’s statement is, it can be compared to how Japanese Emperor Akihito talked about his ‘deepest regret’ when former [South Korean] President Roh Tae-woo visited Japan in 1990.” At the time, South Koreans criticized the remark, interpreting it as one of regret rather than apology.

By Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

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