TOKYO » In one of the clearest signals that Japan is trying to allay fears that it is whitewashing wartime atrocities — and to repair somewhat frayed relations with the United States — the foreign minister said Tuesday that his government would not try to push revisions of World War II history.
In an interview, the foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, distanced his government from far-right statements about World War II made recently by political associates of the conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, including denials of the sexual servitude of thousands of Korean, Chinese and other women.
The statements outraged many in China and South Korea, and fed frustration in Washington, where officials say Abe has failed to distance his administration sufficiently from nationalist sentiments at a time when the region is already embroiled in dangerous territorial disputes.
"The criticism about historical revisionism is coming because people who are not members of the government are making outlandish remarks, and these are then misunderstood as being the historical views of the Abe Cabinet," Kishida said. "This is unfortunate and regrettable."
He also restated the government’s intention to uphold apologies made by earlier Japanese leaders to Japan’s wartime and colonial-era victims.
"Prime Minister Abe and the Abe Cabinet are firmly continuing the views on history, and the position on history of previous administrations," he added. "We must face history, and be humble before it. This is a matter of course."
Kishida’s comments came as Japan and the United States have tried to show unity before a visit here this month by President Barack Obama that is meant to show U.S. resolve to remain a leader in Asia, despite China’s growing influence. Japan will be the first stop for Obama, who will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, all of which are in territorial disputes with China.
In recent weeks, Japanese and U.S. officials have been working to repair ties that were strained when Abe visited a controversial Tokyo war shrine in December, ignoring a personal request by Vice President Joe Biden not to go. The visit revived suspicions in Washington that Abe would return to past attempts to play down Japan’s wartime and colonial past.
That visit was followed by a series of revisionist comments by Abe’s associates, including one of his appointees to the governing board of the national broadcaster, NHK, who called the Tokyo war tribunal after World War II a "cover-up" of U.S. atrocities like the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.
The chairman of NHK, Katsuto Momii, an acquaintance of Abe’s, also caused a furor in January for likening the so-called comfort women forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels to prostitutes who worked voluntarily for money. Abe’s government stoked the outrage by saying it would re-examine the evidence used for a landmark 1993 apology to the women, known as the Kono Statement.
China seized upon the nationalistic comments and the shrine visit to portray Japan’s leaders as unrepentant militarists, in what U.S. and Japanese policymakers saw as an attempt to win international sympathy for its increasingly forceful claims to islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan.
The president of South Korea, another important U.S. ally, also expressed frustration with Japan and refused to meet with Abe despite U.S. pleas for unity against an assertive China and nuclear-armed North Korea.
More recently, however, the Abe government has tried to present a more moderate face. Last month, Abe distanced himself from ultranationalists — and his own past statements — by saying he would uphold the Kono Statement, which recognized that the comfort women were coerced into providing sex to Japanese soldiers. That opened the way for him to finally meet the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, in U.S.-brokered talks late last month.
Over the weekend, the Obama administration seemed to reciprocate by standing up for Japan against China, declaring that U.S. Navy ships would not join a multinational naval parade in the Chinese city of Qingdao after the Chinese refused to invite Japan. The move appeared to be an attempt to alleviate increasing anxiety in Japan that the U.S. might not come to its defense if China seized the disputed East China Sea islands.
In the interview, Kishida said that the Abe government would use the visit by Obama to showcase its efforts to strengthen Japan’s postwar security alliance with the U.S., which maintains 50,000 military personnel at bases in the country. He said these accomplishments include the restarting of a long-stalled deal to relocate an air base on Okinawa, and the willingness to make painful political concessions necessary to negotiate a trans-Pacific trade deal that the Obama administration hopes will cement U.S. regional leadership.
However, he said reaching a deal on the pact, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, might prove too complicated to happen in time for Obama’s visit, although U.S. negotiators are in Tokyo for last-minute talks.
Kishida also said emphasizing Japan’s contributions to the stability and prosperity of the region since the end of the war would be one of the best ways to combat the criticism that it is dabbling in revisionism.
"What our nation needs to do is show that it has accepted the past humbly, repeatedly expressed remorse and above all, walked a path of peace for 69 years," Kishida said. "And we need to explain that there will be no change in these diplomatic policies in the future, either."