Shinzo Abe’s condolences for those lost at Sandakan: a horror from the past, a moment to stop time

Should Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have strolled from his Canberra hotel rehearsing what would be the first speech by a Japanese leader to the Australian Parliament, he would have found himself in calming territory.

A few steps from the Hyatt, just down the hill from Parliament House, is a serene Japanese garden, complete with pagoda and large stone lanterns.

It is the Nara Peace Park, celebrating Canberra’s twin-city arrangement with Japan’s ancient former capital, Nara.

If Mr Abe had wandered a few steps further, he might have discovered his peace disturbed. A new garden marks Canberra’s second, newer sister-city relationship: with Beijing. China and Japan: facing off even on the shore of peaceful Canberra’s lake. The past and the future colliding in a park. But Mr Abe was about to confront another past in a way not heard before in an Australian Parliament. Settling history and looking to the future in uncertain times is in Mr Abe’s genes. Fifty-seven years ago, his grandfather, Japanese PM Nobusuke Kishi, took the first step to put the bitterness of World War II behind Australia and Japan when he signed with PM Robert Menzies an agreement which supplied gas to fuel Japan’s post-war industrial rise.

And so, when Mr Abe rose in the Federal Parliament on Tuesday, seeking more energy, the grandson took another step.

”Now, ladies and gentlemen, when we Japanese started out again after the Second World War, we thought long and hard over what had happened in the past and came to make a vow for peace,” he said. ”We will never let the horrors of the past … repeat themselves.”

And then came words too late for those who were there, but which still sizzle in history.

”Our fathers and grandfathers lived in a time that saw Kokoda and Sandakan,” Mr Abe said.

”How many young Australians with bright futures to come lost their lives and for those who made it through the war, how much trauma did they feel years later from these painful memories? I can find absolutely no words to say. I can only stay humble against the evils and horrors of history. May I most humbly speak for Japan on behalf of the Japanese people here in sending my most sincere condolences towards the many souls who lost their lives.”

Sandakan. The greatest atrocity of the Asia-Pacific war. Here was a Japanese Prime Minister using the name of that place, offering condolences in the Australian legislature. In a world moved on, it was a moment to stop time.

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