For the three key nations of East Asia to move forward, Japan must confront its modern history.
The United States' reaction to the escalating tension in East Asia has been a mix of befuddlement and frustration. Befuddlement because there is no "rational" reason why China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies, should risk military confrontation over tiny, uninhabited islets. Frustration because two of US' closest allies - Japan and South Korea - are now looking daggers at each other. They host around 38,000 and 28,500 US military personnel respectively.
Western pundits have sought to defuse the tension on pragmatic grounds. For example, The Economist, in an article, said: "Japan and South Korea, who squabble over petty issues, need to be told to get over their differences. As for China, it needs to behave like a responsible world power, not a troublemaker willing to sacrifice 60 years of peace… by grabbing a few windswept rocks."
It all sounds quite reasonable. Except, it misses the larger point: Beneath the "petty issues" and "a few windswept rocks" lies a genuine and important need for these nations to come to terms with their modern history.
The Japanese occupation of Korea - which officially began in 1910 and lasted until Japan's surrender to the Allied forces in 1945 - was notable for its iron-fisted rule. It remains a traumatic memory for Koreans. Ditto for a series of aggressive Japanese moves against China, including the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the annexation of Manchuria (1931) and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The last was perhaps the bloodiest conflict in human history, with over 20 million casualties.
The least Japan can do, then, is to admit and apologise for the brutalities of its colonial rule and its wartime atrocities. Japanese leaders have done so repeatedly over the years - so much so that the Japanese, especially the younger post-war generation, now exhibit "apology fatigue". Yet, anti-Japanese sentiments among the Chinese and Koreans remain undiminished. Why?
One reason is a perception - justified or not - that most "apologies" are carefully worded official statements lacking sincerity. For example, Emperor Hirohito's remark in 1984 to the visiting South Korean leader Chun Doo Hwan that "it is indeed regrettable that there was an unfortunate past between us for a period in this century". While recent apologies have been more forthcoming, Japanese officials need to learn that healing deep historical wounds requires more than verbal acknowledgement of guilt.
There has never been a Japanese equivalent of Willy Brandt's "silent apology" of 1970, when the then German Chancellor surprised everyone by kneeling before the Warsaw monument commemorating Jewish resistance. Imagine Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doing the same at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Would the Chinese still complain about the "quality" of Japanese apologies. Unfortunately, Mr Abe seems bent on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are honoured, although he has refrained from doing that since he took office last year.
To complicate matters further, repeated provocations by right- wing politicians have signalled to the rest of Asia that the Japanese don't really mean what they say. The worst recent example is that of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who suggested that "comfort women" - tens of thousands of Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Taiwanese, Burmese, Indonesian, Dutch and Australian women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military - were voluntary prostitutes.
Revisionist historians have also flamed the controversy by claiming that the Nanjing Massacre - the killings and rapes of tens of thousands of civilians - well-documented by US, British and German diplomats at the time - never took place. Due to the lopsided media coverage, it is not uncommon nowadays to find ordinary Japanese who believe the massacre is a fabrication.
All this helps to explain why the small islets of Diaoyus (Senkakus in Japanese) and Dokdo (Takeshima in Japanese) have taken on such outsized significance. The Diaoyus were seized by the Japanese in 1895, the same year the Japanese trounced the Chinese fleet, occupied the port of Weihai, and invaded the island of Taiwan. Japan annexed the Dokdo in 1905, when the country also deprived Korea of its diplomatic sovereignty via the infamous Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty. The timings are not a coincidence - in fact, they clearly indicate that the Diaoyus and Dokdo were deliberately captured as part of Japan's imperial expansion strategy.
Unfortunately, the Peace Treaty of San Francisco following World War II failed to specify the islands among the territories to be renounced by Japan, allowing Japan to continue claiming sovereignty over them.
So what is to be done? It should be clear China and South Korea are not seeking revenge or compensation. By way of illustration, it would be preposterous to assume that the surviving "comfort women" - mostly in their 80s and 90s - are primarily concerned with money when they demand "apologies and compensation" from the Japanese government. Instead, what they seek is a kind of restorative justice - as opposed to retributive justice - which renowned psychologist Steven Pinker describes as giving "the victim an opportunity to express his or her suffering and anger and the perpetrator an opportunity to convey sincere remorse". A good analogy would be the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the late Nelson Mandela, essentially a forum which gave amnesty in return for truth-telling and acknowledgement of harm.
All that is needed, then, is for the Japanese leadership to offer sincere apologies and conciliatory gestures - and what better way is there to show Japan's changed attitude than to abdicate its claims over the Dokdo, and propose joint development of the Diaoyus? The role of leadership should be to elevate citizens above petty nationalism, not pander to it.
The Japanese response
Unfortunately, Mr Abe is a right-wing nationalist who has stated that Class A war criminals are not criminals under Japanese law. He also wants Japan's pacifist Constitution scrapped, and his government has just unveiled a rather aggressive plan for military build-up. Mr Abe's provocations make it difficult for his counterparts in China and South Korea to engage him in a constructive fashion.
Ultimately, the Japanese themselves should decide whether or not to confront their past. But they should note this truth: The more they distort their past, the poorer their future will be. For their future lies in Asia, not outside of it. China is already the largest export market for Japanese firms, and South Korea is the third-largest. With their own population shrinking, the Japanese can ill-afford isolation.
The alternative, on the other hand, looks bright. Japan still leads Asia in many areas of business, arts and academics. Imagine the value that could be created by Japanese and Chinese firms working together: Japan could access the world's largest growth market while China can benefit from advanced brands, technology, know-how and business models.
Had Japan embraced the ideals of historical truth and international reconciliation as Germany did during the post-war period, it could very well have led the region politically, economically and morally. Is it too late to expect such forward-looking leadership from a country that has educated and inspired so many Asian leaders - including Sun Yat Sen and Park Chung Hee - in the past?
Globally, with the rise of China threatening US hegemony, Japan also has a vital role to play in bridging the gap between the two superpowers. Believe us, China and South Korea also want to forgive, forget, and move forward. We sincerely hope our beloved neighbours agree.
Young-oak Kim is professor of Korean studies at Hanshin University and Jung-kyu Kim, director of Singapore- based private equity firm ACA Investments, is his former student and co-author of his latest book, The Great Equal Society: Confucianism, China and the 21st Century.
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