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Aug. 15 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. How can we understand where Japan has come from, where it is today and where it is going? To answer these questions, it’s important to reflect on just how much the world has changed since Japan’s surrender.

A good place to start is the 70th anniversary in 2015, arguably the low point in Sino-Japanese relations. To mark the occasion, the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and World Order in the 21st Century released its report Aug. 6. It acknowledged Japan’s aggression in East Asia, writing that Japan “lost sight of the global trends, and caused much harm to various countries, largely in Asia, through a reckless war.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reified much of the report in his Aug. 14 statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII that after the “withdrawal from the League of Nations, Japan gradually transformed itself into a challenger to the new international order that the international community sought to establish after tremendous sacrifices. Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.”

Importantly, Abe said, “On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.”

Castigators of Abe would argue that the report and the Cabinet statement did not go far enough to apologize for Japan’s imperial period and the suffering it brought Asia. They would assert that this faux-contrition is meaningless while Japan continues to honor its war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine, to deny the existence of wartime forced labor and the plight of the “comfort women.”

Notwithstanding, on the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, a good measure of how much the nation has done to regain trust in the region is to look to Southeast Asia. According to the “State of Southeast Asia 2020 survey” by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Japan and the European Union are the most trusted states in the region, with China and the United States most distrusted.

The U.S., Australia, Canada and other former enemies of Japan have also put the past behind them, according to PEW Research Center polling. Today they view Japan as a responsible global stakeholder, an important country in buttressing the rules-based order and a pillar of stability.

In Northeast Asia, however, the 75th anniversary and Japan’s postwar reputation is not seen in a positive light. In a Chosun Ilbo poll, 90.3 percent of South Koreans saw Japan unfavorably. The Genron NPO Japan-China Public Opinion Survey 2019 found only 43.5 percent of Chinese have a favorable impression of Japan.

Japan has not demonstrated the level of contrition and remorse that many Chinese and South Koreans feel is necessary to make up for its imperial past. They view history textbooks that downplay Japan’s past aggression, politicians’ Yasukuni Shrine visits and unpaid compensation to forced laborers and comfort women as evidence that Japan has not purged its militarist past.

What explains the gap in views of Japan?

The favorable views of Japan in the West are tied to being the victors in WWII. The Japan-U.S. alliance also created a platform for Japan to reconcile with the U.S. and its allies and partners. Importantly, Japan went out of its way in the postwar period to forge strong ties with regional and global institutions, giving it an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to international law, norms and cooperation.

In Southeast Asia, Japan helped the region develop through official development assistance, which helped lay the foundation for Japanese investments to flow into the region, earning Japan trust and respect for contributing its development. For most Southeast Asian countries, Japan’s invasion of the region during WWII was seen through the prism of how previous colonizers treated Southeast Asians, and through the lens of nationalist movements that emerged to create most of the countries there today.

These experiences contrast deeply with those of South Korea and China. Japan’s annexation of Korea and its subsequent war with China was brutal and resulted in the loss of millions of lives, property damage and the violation of women through the region. From Seoul and Beijing’s perspective, the national divisions that exists between North and South Korea and between Taiwan and China are the result of Japanese imperialism.

While both countries fought liberation movements against Japan, it was the U.S. that forced its surrender. A sentiment of unsettled injustice is widespread.

In the postwar period, South Korea went through a prolonged process of “de-Japanizing” its culture to recreate a national identity rooted in Korean traditions, culture and language. That process and mandatory military service to defend against the North has embedded a deeply critical and defensive view of Japan, explaining some of the reasons why reconciliation remains a challenge 75 years later.

South Korea’s unfavorable views of Japan are in part related to how it built its national identity in the post-Korean War period and partly related to contradictory messaging from Japan about its colonial relationship with Korea, whereas China’s sentiments about Japan are in part rooted in domestic politics.

In the aftermath of WWII, China fell into a vicious civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists. With the Communists declaring victory Oct. 1, 1949 and the Nationalists retreating to Taiwan, both parties abstained from demanding an apology and compensation from Tokyo for fear that it would tilt Tokyo to their antagonist.

Opportunities for reconciliation were further complicated by the Cold War and China’s descent into a prolonged period of domestic political chaos that started with the 100 Flowers Movement, continued through the Great Leap Forward and ended with the Cultural Revolution.

It wasn’t until the U.S. normalized relations with China that a window of opportunity to begin the reconciliation process opened between Beijing and Tokyo.

When Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka met Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972, Mao told him there was no need to apologize. “We must express our gratitude to Japan.” Mao said. “If Japan didn’t invade China, we could have never achieved the cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. We could have never developed and eventually taken political power for ourselves. It is due to Japan’s help that we are able to meet here in Beijing.”

Until the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989, both Tokyo and Beijing were content to separate politics, economics and history in their bilateral relations. But from that moment on, Beijing made the decision that China required a cohesive to bring its population together and that was nationalistic education focusing on Japan’s imperial period in China.

Today, books such as “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” by Louisa Lim and “Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations” by Zheng Wang provide a thorough accounting of Beijing’s proactive role in frustrating the Sino-Japanese reconciliation process.

On the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, domestic politics, structure and identity continue to prevent reconciliation between Japan, South Korea and China.

Japan cannot overcome these forces alone. It needs partners in the region but also advocates and constructive critics outside the region to create venues, forums and platforms for Japanese, South Koreans and Chinese to reconcile their differences so they can breath life into Nelson Mandela’s words about reconciliation: “Reconciliation … does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict. Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.”

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

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