HONG KONG — More than half a century after World War II ended, relations between China and Japan are still marred by wartime events.

Beijing and Tokyo will mark the 30th anniversary of their establishment of diplomatic relations Sept. 29, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has still not decided whether to visit China to celebrate the occasion, apparently for fear of a dressing down for having again visited Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including war criminals. Last year, he had flown to China to express remorse after visiting the shrine, and so it came as a shock when he did it again this year.

The Aug. 27 decision by the Tokyo District Court in a case in which 180 Chinese — survivors and relatives of deceased victims of the Imperial Japanese Army’s germ warfare — sought compensation illustrates the extent to which Japan’s attitude to the war is hobbling the progress of bilateral relations.

Presiding Judge Koji Iwata, in the first open admission by a Japanese court, acknowledged that “the evidence shows that Japanese troops, including Unit 731 and others, used bacteriological weapons on the orders of the Imperial Army’s headquarters and that many local residents died.”

Despite this finding, the judge ruled that foreign individuals could not seek compensation from the Japanese government because the reparations issue had been settled by international treaties.

Article 14 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in 1951 by Tokyo and 48 other governments, exempted Japan from paying war reparations. Ironically China, the biggest victim of Japanese aggression, was not invited to take part. Presumably, this was because the newly installed communist government on the mainland was not acceptable to the United States and its allies, while the claim of the government of President Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan to represent all of China was questionable.

In 1952, the Chiang regime signed a separate peace treaty with Japan that was silent on reparations. Instead, it confirmed provisions of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, particularly Japan’s renunciation of its right to Taiwan, a former Japanese colony.

Another chance to seek compensation came in 1972, when Japan and mainland China established diplomatic relations. However, in a joint communique signed by Premier Zhou Enlai, China magnanimously renounced its right to war reparations, satisfying itself with Japan’s acceptance of “responsibility for serious damage caused to the Chinese people through war.”

Thus, when Chinese plaintiffs these days seek compensation in Japanese courts, they not only have to confront a totally unsympathetic Japanese government but they are also faced with the fact that their own government had absolved Japan of the obligation to pay war reparations.

Even now, Beijing does not demand compensation. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, commenting on the court ruling, merely said: “The Japanese side should take an attitude responsible for history and reality and correctly acknowledge and treat the history.”

The Japanese government has adopted a legalistic position, arguing that it had no responsibility to pay compensation for acts conducted before the postwar State Redress Law was enacted. It also argued that the 20-year period for filing claims had already elapsed.

But the real problem is political, not legal. Japan has for decades refused to acknowledge that it had conducted germ warfare in China. The government took the position that it did not know what its predecessor, the Imperial Japanese Government, had done. However, if a Tokyo court can discover the “cruel and inhumane” actions of Unit 731, there is no reason why the Japanese government, with all the resources at its disposal, should be unable to ascertain the truth.

Although the 180 Chinese litigants plan to appeal the decision by the district court, it is unlikely that their case will succeed in a higher court. However, the court’s finding, which has been widely publicized, will make it much harder for rightwing Japanese historians and politicians to deny such things as the Rape of Nanjing, sexual enslavement of hundreds of thousands of women from different parts of Asia and the spreading of bubonic plague in China during the war.

If Japan is really sincere about feeling remorse for its wartime actions, it should stop hiding behind legalistic arguments. True, it may not have a legal responsibility to pay compensation, but surely it must accept that it has a moral responsibility to compensate survivors of its wartime atrocities. The vast majority of victims are dead. The number of those who survive is dwindling year by year, and Japan should act quickly to make any compensation meaningful.

Curiously, the question of germ warfare never came up before the international war crimes tribunal in Tokyo. In fact, Gen. Shiro Ishii, head of Unit 731, and his colleagues were granted immunity by the U.S. in return for their research findings. There is no evidence that China — any Chinese government — consented to this American action.

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