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European scholars have called on the Japanese government to ensure consistency in its statements about wartime history, irrespective of the outcome of Sunday’s election.

They have also said Japan should take the lead in settling historical disputes with China and South Korea to prevent such issues from being used for political purposes.

While opinion polls show Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition has an overwhelming chance of winning re-election, improving relations with Beijing and Seoul will continue to be a top foreign policy priority. Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea.

“Japan is the democracy, Japan is the leading civilization with liberal values, and therefore Japan should be taking the lead,” said Fraser Cameron, director of the EU-Asia Center in Brussels. “You don’t expect an authoritarian country to take the lead on historical issues; you expect them to use history for political purposes.”

“Japan should be on a different level from China,” Cameron said during a recent visit to Tokyo. “If I was in Japan’s position, I would do everything possible to make sure that China could not possibly use the historical argument as a way of affecting current relations between the two countries.”

Cameron suggested that Abe, if re-elected, should make “grand gestures” to achieve reconciliation with the two countries, such as visiting the city of Nanjing in China — infamous as the site where Chinese noncombatants were slaughtered by the Japanese military between December 1937 and early 1938.

“Europeans would like to see Japan behave more like Germany in terms of how it dealt with its neighbors, making grand gestures of, for example, German Chancellor Willie Brandt kneeling before a memorial to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand holding hands at the World War I battlefield of Verdun,” he said.

“This kind of symbolic gesture is very important for the population on each side to understand that leaders at the top genuinely want reconciliation,” said Cameron, formerly a British diplomat and an adviser to the European Commission.

Asked about concerns that a visit to Nanjing by a Japanese leader could be taken as an acknowledgement of Beijing’s claim that the number of victims totaled 300,000, Cameron replied: “This is a ridiculous argument. It doesn’t matter if it was 300,000 or 30,000.”

The number of victims in Nanjing has been the subject of intense debate, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 300,000.

Referring to Abe’s visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in last December, and a review by his administration of how the landmark 1993 Kono apology over “comfort women” was created, scholars suggested Japan should be consistent in its dealings with its neighbors, especially when it comes to views on history.

Though the Abe administration has stated that it has no intention of revising the apology issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, the review sparked speculation that the government may challenge the generally accepted view that the Japanese military forced Korean and other non-Japanese women to serve in brothels during the war.

The comfort women issue has drawn renewed attention since August, when the Asahi Shimbun retracted articles quoting a Japanese source whose accounts — which detailed the forcible abduction and enslavement of Korean women in brothels run by the Japanese Imperial Army — turned out to have been fabricated.

Claiming insufficient evidence, conservative forces in Japan have called on the government to revise the Kono statement, which for the first time acknowledged the involvement of the military in recruiting women to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during the war.

“In all countries and societies there are debates about how to interpret history, in particular the history of wars,” said Sven Saaler, an associate professor of modern Japanese history at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

“Notwithstanding these debates, there is a need to preserve an official position on the interpretation of the past vis-a-vis other countries — one that needs to be continuously confirmed by successive administrations.”

Saaler said recent prime ministers have never been consistent on historical issues. Abe and Junichiro Koizumi have been provocative, while Yasuo Fukuda and Yukio Hatoyama were more conciliatory in their approach toward, for example, the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine. The site is viewed by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism as it honors convicted war criminals alongside millions of war dead.

The German scholar urged Japan to uphold the Kono statement as well as a broader 1995 apology by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama for the nation’s wartime aggression in Asia.

“In doing so, Japanese governments have taken into account the need to achieve reconciliation with former wartime enemies and colonized territories,” he said by phone from Heidelberg. “Taking a different direction will greatly harm the national interest and the national honor, or image, of Japan worldwide.”

Saaler said he is closely watching developments in Japan ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, when the government is planning to issue a new statement.

Saaler and Cameron say it is vital that Tokyo and Seoul put history behind them and work together to confront an increasingly risky security environment. Beijing’s military buildup and muscular posturing in the South and East China seas, as well as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, are among several ongoing threats to regional stability.

South Korea has demanded that Japan settle the comfort women issue in a way that is agreeable to some 54 surviving victims, including an apology and compensation. But Japan has long maintained that the issue of compensation was settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized diplomatic relations.

“This is all bound up essentially with feelings of pride, vanity, prestige. And these are very difficult issues to deal with in politics,” Cameron said.

“But I just look at this from a pragmatic point of view, what’s best for my national security interest. And fundamentally, I would say it’s up to Japan to take the lead and address these concerns.”

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