PRIME MINISTER Shinzo Abe’s attempt to finesse the Japanese government’s role in forcing about 200,000 Asian women to work as sex slaves during World War II is worse than unfortunate. It is counterproductive -- and the best person to repair the damage is Emperor Akihito himself.
Abe took office trying to improve relations with China and South Korea, but he has now torpedoed them by pandering to the Japanese right wing’s most disgusting tendencies toward historical revisionism. With Asia in an uproar, Abe insisted there was no backtracking on the nation’s remorse. No one will be mollified. The incident sets back regional peace and security -- not to mention the national interests of the United States, which lie in fostering far closer Asian cooperation to deal with issues such as North Korean nuclear disarmament.
The insistence by Japan’s extreme nationalists that their country has “apologized enough” for its wartime atrocities, while its politicians and ersatz historians regularly attempt to downplay or simply falsify historical fact, is supremely self-defeating. Moreover, it plays into the insatiable appetite of some Chinese and South Korean leaders to exploit wartime grievances for their own political purposes. Matters have been made worse inside Japan by intimidation against politicians and others who have dared to speak out against official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to the nation’s war dead, including several war criminals.
Japan is a peace-loving democracy, and its heightened self-assurance on the global stage is a welcome development -- at least when its historical obstinacy doesn’t get in the way. The awful truth is that nearly 62 years after the end of World War II, true amends have not been made with South Korea and China. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s failure to discipline its World War II- atrocity minimizers has damaged Japan’s international reputation by undermining the 1995 apology of (Socialist) Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. And because it erodes Tokyo’s ability to be an effective partner in Asia, Japan’s reluctance to fully acknowledge its wartime behavior has hampered the potential of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.
The person who could do the most to reconcile the people of Japan and their neighbors with the past is Akihito, the son of wartime emperor Hirohito. He is also the one person who could lift this issue above the political fray. In 1992 in Beijing, he spoke eloquently about his nation’s tainted past. “There was an unfortunate period during which our country inflicted severe suffering upon the Chinese people,” he said. “This is a deep sorrow to me. When the war ended, our people, in deep self-reproach that this kind of war should never occur again, firmly resolved to tread the road of peace.”
The emperor could now go one step further and offer a more forceful apology for all crimes committed in his family’s name. Such a gesture would be far more definitive and meaningful than any statement issued by a Japanese politician. It’s time for both Japan and its neighbors to move on.