Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues

Abe Statement: The False Promise of The Key Words.


Why Japan’s apology has never been enough? Despite Japan’s effort to come to terms with its past, the apologies Japan offered seems unlikely to make its neighbours reconcile with their past bad-blood. Such a conundrum, over a few decades, has induced frictions and conflicts in Japan political relations with its neighbours, i.e., China and South Korea,, causing turbulences in the East Asian regional politics. To contain to the latest wave of such a regional disturbance and international concern, on August 14th, the widely anticipated 70th anniversary of WWII, the Abe Statement by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on the ‘History Problem’ attracted close concerns from the public and the international society, China and South Korea in particular. In the statement, Abe included all of the four ‘key words’ expected by China and South Korea regarding to a qualified Japanese prime minister statement on the ‘History Problem’ – ‘colonial rule (植民地支配)’, ‘aggression (侵略)’, ‘profound grief (痛切な反省)’, and ‘apology (お詫び)’.


But clearly China and Korea are still not satisfied with, perhaps not even impressed by, Abe’s speaking as they were. Shortly after the speaking, both the Deputy Head of Foreign Ministry of China Zhang Yesui (張業遂) and the Spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春螢) responded in the news press that apologising to the people of the victimised countries sincerely is what Japan ‘ought to (理應)’ have done[1]; the South Korean president Park Guen-hye (朴槿惠) also made the comment that Abe’s statement ‘left much to be desired’[2]. Whilst China and Korea’s reaction has not been negative, it is indeed unlikely that the ‘history problem’ is going to be put to an end by Abe Statement once and for all.

Why, then, is Abe Statement not enough? Why China and Korea are not satisfied even though Abe did include all of the four ‘key words’ in his statement?

Here, let us resist the temptation of repeating the cliché that China and Korea are again using the ‘history problem’ as a political leverage against Japan in diplomatic relationship: rather than an analytical attempt, this line of thinking is more of  a normative claim that says ‘China and Korea should have accepted Japan’s apology’. If there is a meaningful question to ask, it is not whether a ‘history card’ is currently at China and Korea’s disposal to play against Japan or not. Rather, the crucial thing is: why the ‘History Problem’ is useful or usable as the so called ‘history card’ in the first place?

But let’s come back to the initial question: why Abe Statement is not enough? The reason to this puzzle may lie in the nature of speech act itself, which is revealed not by political scientists, but  linguists and psychoanalysists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan.

According to Lacan’s Saussurian understanding of language, speech act is conceived of as a linguistic system comprised of three registers, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real (Lacan, 1956). The first two concepts are indeed intrinsically linked with Saussure’s linguistic theory: the Imaginary refers to what Saussure termed as the ‘signified’, a set of ideas, concepts, or images; the Symbolic, also a Saussurian concept, refers to the ‘signifier’ – the words, letters, or sounds that arbitrarily link the signified with themselves (Pierce, 1902 p.102). The Real, as an important dimension that Lacan developed in addition to the basis of Saussure, refers to the gap between the Imaginary as the signified and the Symbolic as the signifier.

Such structure of language, as described by Lacan, introduces an unresolvable paradox in communcation: whereas communication can only take in language, it is precisely the use of language that introduce the gap that separates the signified and the signifier. For Lacan, the subject and subjectivity exist only in language, and it is only in language that subjects are able to communicate with each other. As Lacan (1956) argues, ‘Man speaks therefore, but it is because the symbol has made him man’ (p.39). It means that it is the linguistic system is the only place where intersubjective relationships and communication are enabled and constructed. However, according to Lacan (2006), it is impossible for the signifier to fully represent the signified. As a consequence, the speaker is never able to adequately express what she intends to say and the receiver never quite get what he expects to listen to. In other words, a perfect communication is structurally impossible.


Such understanding of speech act entails consequences for our analysis of Abe Statement and Japan’s neighbours’ response. First, with Lacan’s Saussurian notion that sign consists of signifier/sound and signified/image, we may be tempted to ask an often neglected question: when China and Korea demand for a ‘correct historical understanding’ from Japan, do they demand the SIGNIFIER, or the SIGNIFIED of the ‘correct historical understanding’?

structural meaning_semiotics

If supposed that China and Korea do want Japan’s ‘correct historical understanding’, what China and Korea want must be the SIGNIFIED – the IMAGE of Northeast Asian rapprochement in which Japan makes repentance and comes to terms with its past, for the ‘correct historical understanding’ itself is a word, a signifier. Suffice it to note that China and Korea have from time to time emphasise that Japan should take ‘real action[3] (實際行動)’ to show its credibility towards its Asian neighbours. Had China and Korea wanted just the signifers – the apologetic words offered by Japan – they would have been satisfied with the Murayama statement in 1995.

And if it what China and Korea have demanded from Japan were the ‘correct historical understanding’ as the signified rather than the signifier, a more serious consequence will be followed: Japan’s offering of speech of apology (a set of signifiers or discourse) may never fully compensate China and Korea’s demand. Such impossibility is not fundamentally resulted from any political reasons such as political economy, conflictual value, and ideology; rather, such impossibility is structurally rooted in the nature of speech act itself – the third communication register in Lacanian theory, the Real.

To reiterate, Lacan’s notion of the Real refers to the gap between the signifier (the Symbolic, or words) and the Signified (the Imaginary, the image that the words refer to); it represents the traumatic impossibility of speech act that the signifier can never fully represents the signified. When China and Korea articulated their demand of apology, they will always have already gone through the linguistic process which separates what they actually demanded as the signified in the register of the Imaginary and what they say they demanded as the signifier in the register of the Symbolic; and when Japan responded to such demand by offering apologies, those apologies are articulated as signifiers in the register of Symbolic and sent to the receivers (China and Korea). Since the Real, as the gap between the Imaginary and the Symbolic, is structurally ineliminatable, there is only one consequence resulted from responding a demand made in language with language: this demand can never be satisfied. In other words, what the receivers want is the signified, but what they get from the speaker is the already-objectivised signifiers, which is not what they want.

But if Japan, China, and Korea are to negotiate the ‘correct historical understanding’, it must be done in language, i.e., in the universe of signifiers, the realm of the Symbolic; but as long as the apology is made in words, it will always fail to meet the demand. Or different put: How can an apology, just as any other speech act, be delivered or negotiated beyond language? If putting ideas (the signified) into words (the signifier) always introduces the traumatic Real (the gap between the signified and the signifier), then, how can Japan possibly express its true, sincere apology?

Perhaps the German case, the success of the Kniefall von Warschau, would help us understand how to overcome the past bad-blood. In December 7th 1970 , After laying down a wreath, the then Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt, very unexpectedly and in a spontaneous manner, knelt. Towards a monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Brandt remained silently for a short time. This act not only won Brandt a Nobel prize of peace in 1971, but also set the milestone which greatly facilitated Germany’s reconciliation with other Eastern European countries. There are two significant factor that contributed to the eventfulness of Kniefall von Warschau: first, Brandt’s action actually comes a surprise (in a survey afterwards, 48% of German thought Brandt’s action was ‘embarrassing’); secondly, not speech was delivered by Brandt in the immediate moment when he knelt. That way, the signifier-signified relationship was reversed in Brandt’s apology-making: what Brandt offered, was not apology as the signifier (speech, words), but apology as image, as the signified, which is more desired by the victims than words. Here, no apology was negotiated in language, and the image, the signified of the sense of grief was delivered immediately (without mediation of language) to the receivers.


Indeed, a true apology is not just a laundry list which enumerates all the guilt and war responsibilities – whilst including the guilt and war responsibilities in a speech may indeed be a necessary condition for making a ‘sincere’ apology, it is questionable if they are sufficient condition. If we use signifiers to explain signifiers, we will be trapped in the endless task of dictionary-checking – signifier A makes reference to signifier B, and B to C, C to D… This is perhaps where Abe Statement fails: it views China and Korea’s demand merely as objectivised signifiers, and make references to other signifiers, thus missing the crucial point that it is the signified of Japan’s repentance that is desired. If Japan answers China and Korea’s words merely with words, there will always be more to apologise, always something else ‘left much to be desired’.

That said, I do not think it is desirable to endorse the point of view that Japan should not make apology any more, as argued by Jennifer Lind (2011). Apology is still required, given the normative concern regarding historical justices and the political fact that the ‘history problem’ has been elevated to the extent that it becomes the political foundation of its relationship with China and Korea. What Japanese leaders have to achieve in terms of its ‘apology diplomacy’ is not just a quantitative difference in terms of apology making, but to make an eventful act which introduces a qualitative break from Japan’s prewar era. If what needs to be satisfied is for Japan to express its ‘correct historical understanding’ as the signified demanded by its neighbours, Japan needs to go beyond merely objectivising China and Korea’s desired signified by using merely speech, i.e., signifiers, as Brandt did in Warsaw.

But after all, has Abe Statement failed? It is not easy to arrive at a straightforward evaluation in such a early stage. Considered Abe’s strong revisionist ideology, it could be viewed as rather positive in the sense that Abe has apparently made great political compromise. Suffice it to note that he was the then general secretary of the Parliamentarian League on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the End of World War II (終戦五十年国会議員連盟) – a group formed in June 1995 to counter Murayama’s Diet Solution to make a full-fledged apology to end the page of the ‘history problem’. On this politically significant occasion of the 70th anniversary of WWII, instead of ‘opposing’ Murayama’s statement as what he did in 1995, Abe, with the power he wished he had in 1995, has done precisely the opposite – he made Murayama’s words his own. While surely Abe does not seem to ‘sincerely’ embrace Murayama’s view on the ‘history problem’, it is fair to say that Abe is not insensitive or uncompromising towards PRC and RoK when dealing the ‘history problem’. After all, it could have been worse.

However, Abe’s statement is not, and in fact, could never have been a ‘Nixon moment’ which alters the relationship between the speaker (Japan) and the receivers (China and Korea); in fact, it is not even a ‘Murayama moment’, which has become the benchmark against which China and Korea evaluate Japan’s attitude towards the ‘History Problem’ and even Japan’s intention of foreign policy making. Given that the Abe Statement has been also evaluated against Murayama Statement, it is clear that Abe Statement, at least in its immediate establishment, is yet to go beyond the temporality of 1995 with any qualitative change.

Hai Guo, (2015). Hai is currently studying for a  PhD  at the University of Leeds. His research is about Sino-Japanese relations, and he is also interested in the works of Zizek, Lacan, Marx and Althusser.


Lacan, Jacques. “Symbol and Language.” The Language of the Self. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956.

Lacan, J. (2006). Erits. Bruce Fink. Trans, New York: Norton.

Lind, J. (2011). Sorry states: Apologies in international politics. Cornell University P

Peirce, C.S. 1902. Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs In: C. S. PEIRCE, ed. Philosophical Writings. Dover.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. “Linguistic Value,” Course in General Linguistics. McGraw Hill, 1966.




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This entry was posted on August 17, 2015 by in Philosophy.
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