Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to China in early October was important for several reasons. In the short term, it represented a significant contribution to easing tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. From a long-term perspective, it helped to lay the foundations for a stronger bilateral relationship.

The evidence for this is contained in one historic paragraph of the joint statement released by the two leaders. This passage states that since the end of World War II, Japan has followed the path of a peaceful, democratic country, thereby contributing to the maintenance of global peace and a friendly relationship with China (particularly after the normalization of diplomatic relations). The statement notes that China shares this perception.

This is a significant bilateral declaration, one that goes beyond the usual problem of the historical perceptions of World War II as well as related issues of whether Japan has apologized sufficiently for its wartime conduct and whether Chinese popular sentiment toward Japan is properly balanced. China has now formally shown appreciation for the way Japan has conducted its affairs since the end of the war, and this appreciation will form the basis for the future course of bilateral ties. Both nations must recognize this statement as one of fundamental importance for their relationship.

The importance becomes especially clear when we view it in the light of one episode that took place when Japan and South Korea were moving to normalize their diplomatic ties: The 1953 statement by Japanese official Kanichiro Kubota, and the problems it created, bear close examination in connection with today’s Sino-Japanese ties.

The Japanese government has yet to release its official record of Kubota’s words, but the Asahi Shimbun published what can be seen as a fairly accurate account of the statement in its Oct. 22, 1953, issue. Then representing Japan at the talks with the South Koreans, Kubota argued that the Korean side should recognize that Japan’s actions during the colonial period — creating farmland, building railroads, constructing ports — were of considerable economic benefit to Korea. If Korea intended to demand compensation for Japan’s colonial rule, he stated, Japan would have to respond with the claim that the infrastructure it left behind canceled out any such claim.

This enraged the Koreans, who said Kubota had humiliated them deeply. Consequently, normalization talks were cut off for nearly five years.

Far from criticizing or issuing a government retraction of Kubota’s statement, a spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that Kubota had merely stated the obvious. In the National Diet, just a few opposition party lawmakers criticized Kubota, and the comment did not become a major issue. There was no public outcry demanding that Kubota take back his remarks, and the press had few, if any, harsh words.

These responses indicate that the Japanese of the time looked at their country’s colonial rule of other states mainly in terms of economic and developmental effects and failed to recognize the harm done to human rights and democratic self-rule.

The domestic Japanese reaction to Kubota’s statement can be understood if we note that less than a decade had passed since the end of the war, and Japan itself had yet to develop a deep comprehension of the true meaning of democracy and liberty. The problems of historical perception do not begin and end with simple questions like who invaded whom, or what the reasons were for that invasion. These perception gaps can only be closed through profound consideration of why the values of freedom and democracy were trampled so brutally.

If the Japanese had a shallow understanding of the historical issues involving their nation and Korea, it was because of a rather weak commitment to the principles of democracy and liberty. An examination of the changes in postwar Japanese perceptions of historical issues involving China and Korea shows that these shifts were closely tied to the degree to which freedom and democracy took root in Japanese society.

We must also recognize that questions of perception are not limited to historical events involving China and Korea. They are intimately linked with Japan’s domestic history — the status of concepts like liberty and democracy in Japan’s society before and during the war, as well as the nation’s record of ignoring human rights in connection with the 1925 Domestic Security Act.

Turning to the present, China’s official recognition of the significance of Japan’s postwar track record as a peaceful, democratic nation is meaningful for another reason: It implies that China itself sees democratic values and human rights as targets to aim for in its own society. Chinese history is filled with depredations against these values, such as the Cultural Revolution, the Tibet problem, and the pillaging and killing seen during China’s own civil war before and after World War II. In the future, the nation will have to look squarely at these episodes as problems stemming from the Chinese state, the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people themselves, rather than blaming them all on external forces or specific individuals. The Chinese people must set out to deal with these historical issues from a free, democratic standpoint.

To settle their historical differences with one another, Japan and China must seek a deep understanding of the sentiment and positions held by each other’s citizens. More than this, though, they must deepen their recognition of the historical paths that they themselves have walked — their fights to achieve democracy and freedom over the years.

Both nations must seek reconciliation with their own pasts if they are to achieve true reconciliation with one another. It is here that the true significance of the joint statement issued during Abe’s October trip to Beijing lies. We must not forget the importance of this spirit.

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