CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The recent turmoil in Sino-Japanese relations has caused anxiety in Thailand. People here would clearly prefer a calmer atmosphere between the two giant powers of East Asia, as their future is linked to both and they stand to lose if there is a collision. Many believe that the current war of words benefits neither.
This writer joins those who are concerned about the future of the embryonic Asian community and the format of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) if the row intensifies. If the two main pillars of such a dream shake with antagonism toward each other, how can they possibly provide the foundations for a harmonious broader community?
A certain degree of Japan-China rivalry is to be expected, but the current row and its potential aggravation are something more disturbing. At the risk of oversimplification, I would like to offer some personal insights on the substance of the disputes.
China should take note of a new Japanese society that is deeply dissociated from imperialistic aberrations. The overall record in Japan during at least the past half century points to pacifist aspirations. If some new nationalism does emerge, it will not be in a menacing context.
China should encourage the pursuit of producing collective textbook materials for school children in the region, but it should not overplay this card, since the Internet, even for children, provides so many other avenues to knowledge. Pontificating from just one angle of analysis becomes instantly obsolete.
It may well be that Beijing is using this controversy to derail Japanese hopes for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. As the paramount voice of Asia, China should instead draw from its glorious past to re-introduce perennial recipes for harmony.
The fate of the United Nations is a caveat of our times. A successful and influential China should show that it can move with the times and away from the stereotypes of a bygone era. (Incidentally, I fail to understand the argument that Japan lacks the moral high ground to join the Security Council because it is unable to come to terms with its past. Even if this were the case, the top world organization reflects the world as it is, not as some wish it to be.)
Japan should finally digest the fact that the issue of official visits to Yasukuni Shrine must be properly addressed. Domestic in essence, there are nonetheless some untenable aspects to it. Although a definite line separates the dead from the living, something must be done to stop once and for all the reactions from China and Korea to Singapore.
As the Japanese political world contemplates a new constitution more aligned with the times — or at least a new interpretation — one fails to understand why it cannot also act boldly and remove the remains of the controversial 14 symbols of the black past (the convicted Class-A war criminals) to another shrine or perhaps to their birthplaces in a dignified manner with the accordance of their families and Yasukuni officials.
Moreover, Japanese political leaders should abandon the argument that visits to Yasukuni are done in a private capacity, for this is a thin veil and completely unconvincing.
Regarding the famous 20 or so apologies that Japan is said to have made to countries victimized by Japanese aggression, I am of the opinion that there have been too many and that each additional apology weakens the previous ones. Maybe Tokyo should select the strongest of the apologies, or the one expressed at the highest level, and enshrine it as the final apology.
One difficulty is that China does not seem disposed to accept any wording. Ambiguity has prevailed on both sides in the case of Yasukuni and on whether some people deserve war reparations. Many critics stress that Japan’s official development assistance was no substitute for reparations and an official apology.
We have to go back to the terms of the diplomatic relations that were restored between Japan and China in 1972. At that time, the Chinese side apparently agreed to waive all claims for compensation. So the Japanese, legally, are in the right. But is there not more to shedding the image of war guilt?
The Japanese should perhaps ponder once more on these delicate issues and reassess their overall image in relation to this unclosed chapter of history. Rightly or wrongly, the general impression everywhere is that Japan has not shown enough remorse. Instead of a new ODA program in the future, would a project of real compensation, say for the former “comfort women” at least, be perceived as more conducive to a tangible correction?
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