Governments from Beijing and Seoul to Washington were waiting to see what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would say in a statement Friday marking the 70th anniversary of his country's surrender in World War II. In the end, he expressed his "profound grief" over his country's wartime actions but stopped short of adding to the apologies Japan has made in the past.
Here, Associated Press correspondents who have followed Japan's disputes with its neighbors over its wartime history offer their insight into the statement and its possible fallout.
Q: WHY DID ABE STOP SHORT OF MAKING AN APOLOGY?
Members of Abe's conservative party have long taken issue with what they see as the victor's version of World War II history and a constitution imposed on Japan by the U.S. occupation after the war. To varying degrees, they argue that Japan, in seeking to build a colonial empire, was only doing what the world's great powers had done, and that it was driven into war when the U.S. and others cut off its access to oil and other vital resources to try to thwart those ambitions.
Given the outcome, they agree that the war was a mistake, but they object to Japan being singled out for blame in the Pacific theater. Many Japanese, not just conservatives, also feel that Japan has sufficiently apologized for the war, and ask why past apologies aren't good enough. That said, Abe and other conservatives have questioned elements of those apologies, opening the way for others to question whether Japan is trying to deny responsibility for its wartime actions.
— Ken Moritsugu is AP's bureau chief in Tokyo. Twitter: twitter.com/kmorit
Q: WILL ABE'S STATEMENT APPEASE CHINESE RESENTMENT OVER HISTORICAL ISSUES AND IMPROVE RELATIONS?
Relations between Japan and China have long had their ups and downs. Leaders in Beijing have found fanning animosity a useful tactic for bolstering public support for the ruling Communist Party, so no single statement is likely to lay wartime ghosts permanently to rest.
But Abe's remarks are nuanced enough that they are unlikely to derail modest progress toward smoothing ties roiled in recent years by a territorial dispute centered on islands in the East China Sea.
Resentment over Japan's invasion and occupation of much of China before and during World War II has tainted ties since Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said Friday that Abe's statement had been a "perfect opportunity" for full reconciliation with its neighbors. But in reporting the statement, it highlighted that he refrained from offering an apology of his own for Japan's atrocities during the war.
"The prime minister also expressed regret at the suffering and sacrifices of many people during WWII in general, but did not mention Japan's own aggression and colonial rule during the war," it said.
Despite his expression of "profound grief," that omission of a direct apology from Abe himself is likely to rankle Beijing.
— Elaine Kurtenbach has reported on Japan, China and the region for The Associated Press since 1987. Twitter: twitter.com/ekurtenbach
Q: WILL ABE'S SPEECH HAVE ANY EFFECT ON JAPAN'S UNEASY RELATIONS WITH SOUTH KOREA?
There will be anger, but little surprise, in Seoul that Abe's statement didn't rise to the level of earlier Japanese apologies. He previously angered South Koreans by visiting the Tokyo shrine that honors war criminals and questioning past apologies, drawing accusations that he is trying to whitewash wartime atrocities.
Japanese prime ministers have repeatedly expressed remorse over the decades to South Korea, which Japan colonized, often brutally, from 1910 to 1945. But the apologies are often seen in Seoul as falling short: Only the views of a single man, the prime minister, and not the government, for instance; or not explicit enough; or ruined by, say, an official somewhere questioning the accounts of Korean women forced into wartime sexual slavery.
There have been long periods when these statements have allowed the countries to get on with their important regional diplomatic and economic efforts, such as cooperation in confronting North Korea's push for nuclear weapons. But South Koreans see sinister designs not only in Abe's reluctance to match past apologies, but also in his push for a stronger military and in territorial claims of South Korean-controlled islets.
What, then, could heal the wounds?
A grand gesture by the prime minister would help — think West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in 1970 in the Warsaw Ghetto. But many in Seoul feel that real forgiveness begins with Japan presenting a thorough, unambiguous apology backed by the weight of the Japanese parliament.
There has yet to be a Japanese leader with both the strength and the inclination to push for something like this and survive politically.
— Foster Klug is AP's South Korea bureau chief. Twitter: twitter.com/apklug
Q: WILL THE UNITED STATES, JAPAN'S CHIEF ALLY, BE SATISFIED WITH ABE'S STATEMENT?
The White House reaction to Abe's statement was positive. Memories of Japan's wartime abuses still provoke strong feelings among the dwindling numbers of surviving U.S. veterans, some of whom have been critical of Abe's attitude to history. But in large part, the two nations have come to terms with the past, setting aside old enmity and forging an enduring postwar alliance.
Yet Washington also has a strong interest in how Japan handles its rift over history with South Korea. Improved relations between America's key allies in Asia would strengthen U.S. standing as it looks to counter the rise of China and manage the nuclear threat of North Korea. But ultimately, South Korea's reaction to Abe's statement will be more important in this equation than Washington's. And since the Japanese leader stopped short of offering a fresh apology, acrimony between the U.S. allies is likely to linger.
The U.S. will keep nudging Japan and South Korea to address their historical differences and look to the future, and the reaction from the White House on Friday reflected that. It welcomed Abe's expression of deep remorse for the suffering caused by Japan during the war and his commitment to uphold past apologies. It also commended Japan's postwar commitment to peace and democracy.
— Matthew Pennington is AP's Asian affairs reporter in Washington.