Of course, I neglected to mention that a Japanese prime minister has previously made such a statement: Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi's 1995 remarks on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. In his remarks, Murayama said the following:
This is the very model of a sincere apology.
During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.
Building from our deep remorse on this occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Japan must eliminate self-righteous nationalism, promote international coordination as a responsible member of the international community and, thereby, advance the principles of peace and democracy. At the same time, as the only country to have experienced the devastation of atomic bombing, Japan, with a view to the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, must actively strive to further global disarmament in areas such as the strengthening of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is my conviction that in this way alone can Japan atone for its past and lay to rest the spirits of those who perished.
It is said that one can rely on good faith. And so, at this time of remembrance, I declare to the people of Japan and abroad my intention to make good faith the foundation of our Government policy, and this is my vow.
But this apology is problematic. Murayama was Japan's first and only Socialist prime minister following the creation of the LDP in 1955, and the product of a grossly opportunistic coalition formed between the LDP and the Socialists after the collapse of the Hosokawa-Hata coalition cabinets in 1993-1994. Accordingly, the question is for whom was Murayama speaking. Himself? His government? All of the Japanese people? One thing is for certain: he was not speaking for Japan's conservative nationalists, including the current prime minister. And, as his policy proposals towards the end suggest, he was working in the pacifist paradigm that did not rankle Japan's neighbors.
The decade since the Murayama Cabinet suggests that the Murayama apology was more a coda on the postwar era than the dawn of a new age of Japanese relations with its continental neighbors. Japan is unmistakably more assertive, and has been governed by prime ministers who have not hesitated to push against the postwar restraints on Japan's playing a more significant role in the world. Thus, despite Koizumi's repeating the Murayama apology, words and actions did not match. As Tokyo University Professor Fujiwara Kiichi wrote, "Mr. Koizumi’s apology was a word-for-word repetition of the one made by then Prime Minister Tomoiichi Murayama in 1995 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. This fact gave Mr. Koizumi’s words a hollow ring. It was as if he was merely stating a memorized mantra."
Accordingly, Japan needs an unequivocal apology for the war that comes not from the lips of a tired, old Socialist but from a (young) nationalist like Mr. Abe, in many ways the political (and sometimes literal) heirs of the politicians who governed Japan during and before the war. Otherwise the apology will be just as meaningless as Murayama's was -- and, since Abe and his ilk have a more ambitious foreign policy agenda than Murayama, Japan's efforts to play a more significant regional and global role will continue to draw opposition from Japan's neighbors.
Given that Japan's nationalists are nothing if not unrepentant, however, no such apology seems to be in the offing; the history issue will undoubtedly continue to fester.