Japan's Future -- and Past
The new prime minister must be honest about history.

Monday, September 25, 2006

IN ITS LONG march from military catastrophe to heavyweight status, postwar Japan has oscillated between two kinds of error. Its left wing has been honest about the past but irresponsible about the present: It has shown remorse for atrocities committed by Japanese troops in East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s but has been reluctant to see Japan emerge from its pacifist shell and contribute to international security. Meanwhile, the right has made the opposite mistake: It has pushed for Japan to take more responsibility for defense but has glossed over Japan's war guilt. Since becoming prime minister in 2001, Junichiro Koizumi has tended to make the right-wing mistake. His newly chosen successor, Shinzo Abe, threatens to do the same -- but more dramatically.

Mr. Koizumi came to power after a period in which demonstrators called for the removal of American troops from Japanese soil and the value of an alliance forged during the Cold War was widely questioned. He acted decisively to reinforce U.S.-Japanese ties, participating in the Bush administration's missile defense program, sending noncombat troops to Iraq despite Japan's pacifist constitution and taking a tougher line on North Korea than Japan had ventured previously. This pro-American instinct was Mr. Koizumi's good side. But the prime minister also insisted on visiting the Yasukuni shrine commemorating Japan's war dead, including its war criminals, and during his tenure some government-approved textbooks whitewashed Japan's war record. This unnecessarily inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment in China and other neighboring countries.

Mr. Abe promises an extreme version of this formula. He seems likely to dilute Japan's pacifism further: As he correctly says, it is wrong that a Japanese warship cannot come to the aid of a U.S. one attacked by a third country. He will be tougher on North Korea, too, having built his public career on denouncing Pyongyang's dictator. But Mr. Abe has also gone further than Mr. Koizumi in glossing over the past. He has questioned the legitimacy of the Tokyo trials that condemned Japan's wartime leaders. He has not endorsed the apology that Japan's government issued on the 50th anniversary of its surrender.

Mr. Abe sees political advantage in asserting Japan's pride. His grandfather was part of Japan's wartime leadership, so there may be a personal angle to his view of history. But he needs to recognize that forthright policies in the present must be underpinned by forthright honesty about the past. If Japan admits past errors, it will gain acceptance as the responsible democracy that it is, and its muscular foreign policy will be treated as legitimate. But if it professes to see nothing wrong in its own record -- including episodes such as the massacre of at least 100,000 Chinese in Nanjing -- its efforts to assert itself on security and diplomatic questions will raise tensions with neighbors, undermining regional security rather than contributing to it.

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