It is really sad. At a time when Asia would profit immensely from as much togetherness and mission-sharing as possible, nationalism and finger-pointing seem more in force than ever.

It is irrefutable that Japan did extremely terrible things to its neighbors during World War II and should always be contrite about this fact. Even so, if love is never having to say you’re sorry (as the popular American novel “Love Story” pointed out), will Japan never get the love and respect that her mostly admirable postwar record of domestic pacifism and regional contributions deserve? Or is Japan always going to have to say it’s sorry . . . forever?

The Japanese perspective is that the apology game has gone on too long. OK. — then would this proposed apology suffice?

“During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.”

Not theoretically, good enough? In fact, this was the stated public apology for Japan’s war crimes delivered by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. And this was in 1995.

Then, in 1998, former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi expressed similar “remorse and heartfelt apology.”

That apology was publicly accepted by then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jong. But in recent weeks the current Republic of Korea president has raised anew, among other issues with Japan, the war-crimes controversy. Is a “diplomatic war” brewing in Asia?

I ran this dilemma by current Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, who is well aware that things are heating up. I found his answer, offered in an exclusive interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both forthright and helpful.

“This is not a problem that will be resolved that easily,” said the diplomat, who studied at prestigious Wesleyan University in the United States. “I say this because, even though 60 years have passed since the end of the World War II Koreans and Chinese remember vividly how they were colonized by us and how we were the aggressors. Then, the experience of the World War II was passed on to each generation — perhaps sometimes in an exaggerated manner through their educational system. Now, there are even some people who suggest there is a history ‘card’ that others play, a diplomatic tool . . . not that I feel this way. On our side, in fact, there is a need for the Japanese people to remain careful and considerate, remembering the scars that are in their hearts, and not hurt them any more.”

That seemed forthright enough for me, but what do I know? Rapacious Japanese policy in Asia during the war was truly blood-curdling. Cynical Japanese would argue the issue of their war-time atrocities would not be so salient today if they had won the war. The fact, of course, is they didn’t. So the apology issue will remain salient for some time to come. But perhaps it won’t cripple this region’s need for greater regionalism, political as well as economic.

“In spite of all these problems,” said Machimura, “we are seeing intensifying pressure for cooperation. People are starting to understand one another better. Over time, all this will be resolved.”

That, in fact, is the challenge of Japan today. How best to overcome the past so as to realize a better future? Japan sports one of history’s most amazing economies, but until recently its diplomatic bottom-line has been far too conservative and risk-adverse. Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his Foreign Ministry ace Machimura, that appears to be changing. If the effort is truly successful, Japan then will no longer need to apologize to anyone.

And then maybe Japan will truly be loved, and never again have to say it’s sorry.

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