NEW YORK – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine has damaged Japan’s already strained ties with China and South Korea, who say his action shows that Tokyo remains unrepentant about its militarist past.
In an interview, Gerald Curtis, a veteran Japan scholar at Columbia University, described Japan’s ties with China and South Korea as “worrisome,” with the “history issue” an underlying factor.
He advised Japan to “take pride in admitting what you’re not proud of,” just like other countries that have re-evaluated their pasts, including the United States, where schools address uncomfortable truths about issues such as the treatment of Native Americans, the segregation era and the Vietnam War.
“This history issue, you can’t just say it doesn’t matter or there’s nothing Japan can do, Japan has to do something,” Curtis said.
Nearly 70 years after World War II, this question, he said, is “more controversial now than it ever has been in the postwar period” and there is now “all this anger directed against Japan.”
This is despite Japan being a peaceful country and providing sizable economic assistance to South Korea and especially China since the war.
“I think a lot of Japanese are really perplexed by this development,” Curtis said.
In the past, the Chinese and South Korean governments downplayed Japan’s wartime actions, according to the scholar, because they needed a good relationship with Japan to rebuild their struggling countries.
“There was a kind of collusion between the Japanese, the Koreans and the Chinese not to make a big issue of Japan’s war crimes and so on, because they had other objectives that the Japanese could help achieve in terms of economic growth,” he said.
However, as the Chinese and South Korean economies took off, the people there began to revisit Japan’s role as a colonizer while Japanese schools continued to leave out “unpleasant and awful” parts of its history.
“There is a loss of memory in Japan and an intensified memory in China and Korea,” Curtis said, adding that Japanese youth now are unaware of the historical context surrounding Yasukuni, where Class-A war criminals are honored along with the war dead. The shrine served as a potent instrument of state Shinto worship and a symbol of Japan’s militarism.
“The Koreans and the Chinese don’t let this history go; they think it somehow benefits them to bash Japan and it’s wrong,” he said, adding, “They’re helping to make the nationalist sentiment stronger in Japan.”
Although Seoul and Beijing have repeatedly called on Tokyo to apologize for its colonial past, Curtis said that the 1995 statement on Japan’s wartime conduct by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama was sufficient. “It’s not a question of apology, Japan has apologized many times and the Murayama apology is about as strong and as full an apology as you can ask for,” he said.
The current government needs to proactively reach out to its neighbors to assure them that it will not repeat its militarist past, the scholar suggested.
“Abe has to come out and say . . . there is no room in Japan today for the values that led Japan to do what it did before the war,” Curtis said, elaborating that they are the values that led Japan “to become a colonial power, to use force against neighboring countries, that accepted the recruitment of young girls to provide sex for Japanese soldiers.”
Abe needs to make such a statement “whether or not he believes it,” the professor said. “Without that kind of reflection on its past, I don’t see how you can really improve the situation.”
On China, Curtis said, “the issue is a real, palpable sense of concern, if not fear, on the Japanese part” about the implications for its security of Beijing’s growing power as it challenges the American position in Asia, where the United States has exerted hegemony.
In this context, Curtis said the United States, bound by a security alliance with Japan, is concerned about being entangled in a conflict it does not want to be part of, such as a military clash over the Senkaku Islands, now at the heart of a row between Tokyo and Beijing.
The United States would not want to get involved in a war with China for Japan over those “barren rocks in the East China Sea,” given the war fatigue Americans are experiencing after Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Curtis.
For the U.S. administration, he said, “the question is how do you demonstrate to the Japanese that our commitment to Japanese security is as strong as ever, but not give Mr. Abe a free hand to create problems that will then drag us into a situation we don’t want to be a part of?”
Curtis questioned the growing view in Japan that things would be different if the Republicans were in power instead of Democratic President Barack Obama, who is perceived as weak and indecisive. “This is an illusion,” Curtis said. “This is not about Obama. This is about a changed world and a changed U.S. in the world.”
While the Japanese media “exaggerates” the extent of anti-Japanese sentiment in China and South Korea, there is room for ameliorating relations in East Asia, the professor suggested, citing the South Korean business community, which he sees as not necessarily anti-Japanese, and young Chinese people.
Chinese students studying at Curtis’ Columbia University are critical of their own government and “find Japan a very attractive place,” he said, although adding they are “very critical naturally enough” of Japan when it comes to questions of history