LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In the rolling green countryside of West Sussex in South England, there is an estate called Wilton Park. Some readers of this column may be familiar with the place and the institution it has become: “Wilton Park conferences” occur throughout the year bringing together politicians, officials, business executives and academics for several days to discuss some of the key topics of the planet. It is an excellent environment for this kind of meeting; quite grand, yet intimate and comfortable, and “inspirational.”

Built in the 16th century, ownership of the estate changed hands several times before the last descendant of the last family died without any heirs shortly after World War II. He bequeathed the estate to the British government on the condition that it should serve as a venue for rebuilding trust and confidence between the British and German communities.

And that is what happened at Wilton Park for about a decade: meetings after meetings bringing together people from these two countries that had just emerged from war. By the late 1950s, it was felt that the relationship between the two countries had become solid enough that the scope and participation could be extended to discussion of broader European and trans-Atlantic issues. In the ’80s, Wilton Park globalized and, among other things, has held a number of highly successful conferences on Japan.

Comparable initiatives took place between France and Germany — especially following the close and constructive relationship forged between German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle — and between Germany and other European countries. All of these political, intellectual and confidence-building initiatives were, of course, based on Germany’s unqualified apology and contrition. This came to define Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century, which stands in stark contrast with the Western Europe of the first half of the century.

In 1949, when I was 4 years old, my older sister and I spent a few months in a “pension” (boarding kindergarten). In the chalet right next to our pension was an orphanage for children who had lost both their parents in the war. To this day I vividly remember it. As one so fortunate to have had both his parents survive the war, I remember gawking quite voyeuristically at the orphans, wondering what it could be like not to have parents.

Strangely enough, almost 50 years later I came to live not too far from where that pension was. The buildings are still there, both transformed into a tourist hotel and chalets. I regularly return as a pilgrimage and think how fortunate I was not only to have my parents but also to be the first generation in my family that did not need to fight the Germans — or any other European neighbors — and never ever lived under that cloud. My children and my grandchildren are most likely to enjoy the same good fortune.

It is not because peace has existed in Europe for 57 years that this should necessarily have been the case. It was World War I that was termed “the war to end all wars.” And look what happened. Things do not happen in history by accident or out of some externally pre-ordained plan. History is written by men and women who make things happen or prevent them from happening.

In 1945, the chasm that separated the Germans from the French, the British, the Danish and the Dutch was absolutely huge and conceivably unbridgeable. It was eventually bridged, not just because of the political leadership of de Gaulle, Adenauer and others, but because of the efforts of people who attended Wilton Park and comparable meetings and because of a determination on the part of people of good will to establish, no matter how formidable the obstacles, a relationship of trust and confidence.

It was during my latest trip to China, two weeks in late May and early June, that I found myself thinking about Wilton Park and my childhood pension. In contrast to Western Europe, where the prospect of war is no more than an extremely distant remote possibility, the prospect of war in East Asia, including war between China and Japan, cannot be lightly dismissed. Of course, it sounds unfathomable, but wars generally do sound unfathomable — and they happen nevertheless. There are growing ties and economic interdependence between China and Japan, but that in itself, as history shows, by no means guarantees peace.

What is conspicuously, indeed emphatically, lacking between China and Japan (as between Japan and all of its Asian neighbors) is trust. The degree of mutual suspicion between the two is intense and alarming. And it does not get better with the younger generations.

At the end of a three-day conference on trade, investment and the global economy, I asked a young female Japanese participant what she got out of it. She replied that China would be “a great threat to Japan”; interesting, especially since that subject had not been discussed.

A Chinese student I was speaking to in Beijing last week told me that as Japan had gone to war thrice with China while it was rising and China declining, it was only natural that now that the reverse process was occurring China should go to war with Japan.

The old saying that “time heals all wounds” is false. Wounds that are left to fester get worse with time. It’s people, not time, that can heal wounds.

There are two major differences between Germany and its neighbors and Japan and its neighbors. The first is that Japan has never made the unqualified act of contrition that Germany has made. And the absence of contrition is due in good part to the absence of acknowledgment, or even awareness.

One example, out of thousands, was the decision to cut the scenes of the Rape of Nanjing from the showing of Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie “The Last Emperor” in Japan. Japan’s collective amnesia needs to be nurtured!

The second difference is that there has not been a major effort to create a framework of trust and confidence building across societies. There is no East Asian “Wilton Park.” The Japanese do not seem prepared to countenance this kind of dialogue at the level and intensity that are required.

Last year I wrote to the South Korean and Japanese ambassadors in Bern, proposing that we get together for lunch with a view of forming a framework for dialogue involving civil society in both countries to address the issues of history textbooks and sex slaves. The South Korean ambassador accepted and came to lunch. The Japanese ambassador refused, explaining in a letter he wrote to me, “I have a basic stance that such delicate issues as ‘history textbooks’ or ‘sexual enslavement’ should be discussed in the frame of direct talks between the two governments.”

For one thing, a German ambassador would not refer to concentration camps in quotes or as a delicate issue. So long as the Japanese official position is that sexual enslavement is just a “delicate issue,” there is not much hope for establishing trust and confidence. The refusal to countenance dialogue that goes well beyond the state-to-state apparatus constitutes another formidable obstacle.

What Japan should do is obvious. Here are some suggestions. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi could go to Nanjing and, as German Chancellor Willy Brandt did when he came to the Warsaw ghetto memorial, kneel and beg forgiveness. Japanese officials and opinion leaders should stop writing about sexual slaves, the Nanjing massacre and biological warfare unit 731 in quotes, while referring to them as “delicate issues.” Calling them crimes against humanity will be fine.

Once these steps have been taken, a framework should then be established with a schedule over the next 10 years to bring together representatives across the spectrum of Japanese society and their counterparts from China, South Korea and other Asian countries that were victims of Japanese aggression to engage in open discussion and confidence building.

Last week I wrote that a major weakness of Japan in the global era was the great difficulty it has in establishing external relationships based on trust. Without building relationships of trust with its immediate neighbors, it is highly unlikely the weakness will be overcome. Doing so might go some way to averting a future war between China and Japan, a prerequisite for peace in the global era.

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