If the Democratic Party of Japan hadn’t swept to power last year, there may have been no further statements of regret from the country for its imperial past like the one directed at South Korea on Tuesday.
“I express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and my heartfelt apology,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in the statement, issued ahead of the centennial of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula is marked on Aug. 29.
Having apologized for 36 years of colonial rule, Kan emphasized that recent ties with South Korea are more stable and amicable than ever and declared his renewed determination to forge a better future for the two countries by looking to the next 100 years.
Kan, who assumed office two months ago, has strengthened the image that his DPJ is more pro-Asia than the past governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party.
The statement was released at a time when many Japanese are realizing the policies the DPJ has pursued since its historic win in last August’s general election, especially in economic areas, are falling short of expectations.
Since the DPJ-led ruling bloc lost its Upper House majority in the July 11 election, Kan has taken a softer line toward the opposition camp, saying he is open to any ideas that would contribute to the benefit of the people.
But at the same time, Kan — who has described himself as a pragmatic politician — apparently realizes his stay in office will probably be short-lived if he doesn’t give his government a fresh image.
Shortly after taking office on June 8, Kan, who was enjoying high public support at that time, had explored the possibility of making a surprise visit to Seoul in August to directly apologize to the people of South Korea for Japan’s past harsh rule, according to diplomatic sources.
This plan, however, didn’t materialize because of the DPJ’s Upper House defeat, the sources said.
Since then, the idea of releasing a statement on Japan’s colonial rule had become a real possibility, government sources said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, a lawyer-turned-politician who worked for the rights of ethnic Koreans in Japan, had taken the initiative in arranging the release of the statement, according to the sources.
But there were some objections to the idea of releasing such a statement, and not only among opposition parties but also within the DPJ.
Those who were against the idea said another apology would be unnecessary as Japan’s official stance on the issue has been established since 1995, when the prime minister at the time, Social Democratic Party leader Tomiichi Murayama, issued a statement formally apologizing for Japan’s wartime actions, especially to the people of Asia.
Opponents said a new statement on Japan’s colonial period aimed exclusively at South Korea could reignite the issue of compensation elsewhere in Asia.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the LDP criticized the government’s decision, describing Kan and Sengoku as “foolish” and “ignorant” about dealing with historical issues.
Kan was aware criticism would emerge from political circles, the sources said.
But Kan, who will stand in the September DPJ presidential poll that will decide if he continues as prime minister, dared to release the statement partly because he believes he will win more public support than he loses in doing so.
Kan, who has relatively few close allies within the DPJ, is sensitive to the opinions of the general public, believing he can stay in power as long as he can continue to top the list of most popular choices for prime minister.
Seoul has welcomed Tokyo’s latest decision, although the expressions of apology chosen were basically in line with the Murayama statement, delivered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.