LONDON — U.S. President George W. Bush is reported to have stressed recently to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi the importance of healthy diplomatic relations between Japan and Asian countries and to have suggested that improved relationships in the region could help to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship. The fact that Bush pointed out such obvious facts to Koizumi highlights the extent of the recent deterioration in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.
Visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Koizumi and other Japanese Ministers in their official capacity have been regarded in both China and South Korea as provocative not least because the “souls” of Japanese leaders condemned at the Tokyo Trials are also enshrined there. This is interpreted as the Japanese government’s failure to acknowledge Japan’s responsibility for the war in the Far East.
Some historians harbor doubts about the fairness of the international war-crimes tribunal, and the sufferings caused by the war cannot be attributed solely to Japanese authorities. Still, an objective analysis of events between 1931 and 1945 shows that the Japanese military and political leaders were responsible for the death of many millions and for unacceptable suffering. (Some of the greatest casualties and worst suffering were inflicted on the Japanese people by the leaders who led them in the war.)
The Japanese side has asserted that apologies have been made and reiterated. It is also claimed that the souls of those condemned by the tribunal cannot be removed from enshrinement, that enshrinement does not mean denial of their responsibilities in relation to the war and that Japan has no other place where its war dead can be commemorated (although there is the memorial to unknown soldiers in Chidori-ga-fuchi park).
These excuses might be taken more seriously if there were a wider recognition among Japanese politicians that the history of the war cannot be swept under the carpet. The comparison has often been made between the willingness of postwar Germany to recognize the evils committed by the Nazis and the reluctance of Japan to recognize the crimes of the Imperial military. The comparison is sometimes pushed too far. Circumstances were different. The Holocaust, for example, was of such horrific proportions that it overshadows many of the other sufferings caused by the war.
But there is no excuse for amnesia about what happened in China and Japanese-occupied territories. Nor can glossing over the past be justified by saying to other peoples that “you’ve done likewise.” There have inevitably been disgraceful episodes in the history of every country, and we all need self-reflection.
Inevitably the signs of nationalist arrogance displayed by some Japanese politicians arouse fears that ultranationalism is a growing threat and might lead to a revival of militarism. There is no evidence, though, of a revival of militarism in Japan, and such a revival would not be acceptable to the vast majority of the Japanese. Rightwing groups make a lot of noise and are just a nuisance.
Koizumi and his henchmen including Taro Aso, the foreign minister, have unfortunately put themselves into a position in which they feel that, if they stop paying official visits to Yasukuni, they could suffer a serious loss of face. If Koizumi aspires to be remembered as a statesmanlike leader, he will show that he is not a populist politician and will end the posturing over Yasukuni. He will also curb the tongues of colleagues whose knowledge of history is clearly limited.
The Chinese must accept at least an equal share of the blame for the current deterioration in relations. There seems little doubt that they encouraged, or at least did little to discourage, anti-Japanese demonstrations earlier this year. Whatever we may think of how some Japanese history textbooks treat events before and during the war, Chinese textbooks cannot claim to be objective. The Russians have recognized the crimes committed under Stalin, but the Chinese have yet to admit that Mao Zedong was an evil monster and that appalling crimes were committed during the Cultural Revolution and previous campaigns. The Chinese communists were responsible for the deaths of many millions of Chinese, but present-day leaders are not yet ready to admit this fact or acknowledge the environmental degradation and misery caused by their mad rush to industrialize.
Signs of a more liberal regime are always being sought by China watchers who argue that economic growth on the current scale will lead to more representative institutions, but human-rights abuses continue and there is little indication of moves toward democracy. Life for many Chinese has vastly improved, but the gaps between rich and poor, and between town and countryside, have grown.
South Korea has much to be proud of. Its economic development has been phenomenal and its military dictatorship has been replaced by a democratic regime. But corruption has cast a dark shadow and Korea has not escaped serious environmental problems. Korean historians looking at relations with Japan unfortunately seem to find it difficult to take an objective view of the past despite the current popularity in Japan of Korean popular culture.
There is much for Koreans to deplore in Japanese racial attitudes and Japanese aggression, but Japan and Korea have many common cultural traditions. The Japanese should recognize their cultural debt to Korea, and Koreans should admit that the traffic was not all one way.
The North Korean problem affects China, Korea and Japan. The difficulty of negotiating with the Kim Jong Il regime, Japanese fears of a North Korean nuclear capability and understandable Japanese fury over abductions of Japanese years ago must not be allowed to prevent attempts to open up North Korea, however slow the process.