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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:35 03/09/2007
Commentary (November 22, 2006)

Japan's Last Chance?

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

Less than two months after Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as prime minister, China-Japan relations have improved dramatically and, according to a senior Chinese official, are again "back on track".

While there were no high-level visits during Mr Koizumi's five-year tenure, the Chinese received his successor, Shinzo Abe, on an official visit last month. They have agreed that President Hu Jintao will visit Japan next year, the 35th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the two countries in 1972.

Ironically, the bilateral relationship is being repaired under Mr Abe, an ultra-nationalist who has visited the Yasukuni Shrine on many occasions, though not since becoming prime minister.

So far, Mr Abe has done the easy part: staying away from Yasukuni. The difficult bits lie ahead, including: an admission of Japanese culpability in invading and occupying China; and responsibility for waging chemical warfare, conducting biological experiments on Chinese, and forcing Chinese women into sexual servitude to gratify Japanese soldiers. Other grievances are the kidnapping and shipping of Chinese men to Japan to work in mines, the 1937 Rape of Nanking, and the way Japanese textbooks depict - or fail to depict - such events.

In recent years, Japanese society has increasingly sought to deny responsibility for such atrocities - often denying that they even occurred. It would not be easy for Mr Abe to persuade his supporters to reverse course. But reverse course they must, for if Tokyo refuses to confront its past, its former victims, China and South Korea, will find it difficult to share a future with Japan.

The Japanese would do well to borrow a leaf from Germany's book, and see how the Germans succeeded in winning acceptance in Europe. That involved embracing, not denying, the events of the second world war, and trying to make amends whenever possible.

China and Japan also have to tackle more current issues, such as the dispute over natural-gas deposits in the East China Sea. China has started to exploit the resources, but Japan fears that deposits on its side may get sucked up by the Chinese.

Beijing should be more understanding of this Japanese concern, instead of saying routinely that the Chinese activities are only being conducted in Chinese waters and "the concern and apprehension of Japan is unnecessary".

Ultimately, however, relations between the two countries are unlikely to be sound unless Tokyo grasps the nettle and deals with questions of history. Part of the baggage Mr Abe carries is that he is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime Cabinet member who was imprisoned as a Class-A war criminal but never tried, and who became prime minister in the late 1950s.

Kishi, as minister of commerce and industry, oversaw a programme whereby men from China and other countries were forced to work in Japanese mines during the war. Many of them died, but some of the survivors are currently asking for compensation.

So Mr Abe must also be willing to confront not just what his country did before his birth but what members of his immediate family were responsible for. But he should see this as an opportunity for him and his government to rise above domestic political disputes. They could boldly acknowledge moral - if not legal - responsibility, and offer compensation to the handful of elderly survivors of Japanese atrocities.

Every year, more of these elderly men and women die and, pretty soon, there will be no one to take the Japanese government to court. But, by the same token, there will be no opportunity for the Japanese government to show that it is truly remorseful for Japanese actions 60 or 70 years ago.

Tokyo should do what it can to ease the final years of the living victims of Japanese actions. It will win Japan goodwill that cannot be measured in dollars.

(Originally appeared in the November 22, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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