Japan must now face up to its place in history

Kak-Soo Shin – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
Published: June 5 2005 19:46
This year has much symbolic historical meaning for Asians, as it marks the centennial of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in 1945, two events that represent the rise and fall of Japanese imperialism in Asia in the last century. Normally, these two dates would have passed quietly, simply offering a chance to reflect on the lessons of history.
However, amid a rising tide of nationalism in the Asian region, a series of Japanese moves has strained Tokyo’s relations with its neighbours. In March, a Japanese local assembly adopted a decree claiming ownership of the Dokdo Islands in the East Sea. A century ago, after forceful occupation during the Russo-Japanese war, Japan declared the island its territory. Korea, already stripped of diplomatic power at that time, was unable to protest at this act, which was the first step towards the annexation of the entire peninsula in 1910.
By recently justifying this old act of imperial aggression, Japan reopened old wounds in the Korean psyche and dampened the South Korean government’s growing initiative to build positive bilateral ties – in the face of some domestic opposition to improving relations. In another development, the Japanese government yet again approved a textbook that presented a distorted view of history – an act that by denying or disregarding facts undermines ties. The Japanese government has apologised to other Asian people for past wrongdoing, but such expressions of remorse were a product of hard bargaining – and the degree of sorrow did not meet regional expectations. The actions of the Japanese government continue to contradict its words. Visits by the country’s prime minister to Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are commemorated, are another source of friction.
People outside Asia may wonder why, unlike in Germany, historical ignorance is still so pervasive in Japan. Right after the second world war, the onset of the cold war blocked a big purge by the Allied powers of those in Japan who were responsible for the conflict. In spite of the predominance of moderate conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic party, continuity between the prewar and postwar period in Japanese political leadership prevented any bold initiative for reconciliation with Asia and the emergence of a truly new Japan.
Even worse, liberal elements in Japan saw their influence eroded. The “lost decade” of economic malaise in the 1990s and anxiety over the steady rise of China are also important contributing factors. Japan’s propensity to ignore Asia in favour of bolstering the Tokyo-Washington alliance offers a clue to its obstinate attitude towards history. The Japanese two-sided communication style based on the division between tatemae (public persona) and honne (real feelings) also seems to contribute to Japan’s rift with Asia over handling the past. Furthermore, the nature of Japanese society, built as it is on a group consciousness of and avoidance of shame, tends to work against the sort of genuine apology that is based on acceptance of guilt. In Germany, by contrast, it was recognition of guilt that constituted the starting point for apologies for past actions.
The rest of the world should do its part to influence Japan. Given the growing weight of Asia in world politics, countries could put greater pressure on Japan to take the right path with respect to its own history. The US has a substantial stake in reconciliation in Asia and can help create a durable foundation for peace there. A “Gaullist” Japan, engulfed by unbridled nationalism, would not serve US or European interests, given the growing interdependence of these western powers with Asia. In the absence of true historical reconciliation, other Asians will continue to be wary of Japan’s pursuit of “normal state” status and a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
If Japan continues to ignore its history, it will foster a reckless nationalism, both at home and in other Asian nations, that could undermine this dynamic yet volatile region. This would be in no Asian country’s interest – not even Japan’s.
As the leading industrialised democracy in Asia, Japan must open a new chapter in the region by refraining from glossing over its history and by living up to its apologies. With genuine apologies and corresponding deeds, Japan will be able to help lead a more integrated and inclusive Asia into a promising future.
The writer is the deputy permanent representative at the mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations; these are his personal views

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