WHEN IT comes to facing history in Asia, there is a striking double standard. China does not allow its own people to learn anything remotely resembling the truth of its 20th-century past — not about which Chinese forces battled Japanese invaders, not about the millions killed in the Great Famine of 1958 to 1961 caused by the policies of leader Mao Zedong, not about the brutal 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. But Chinese officials feel entitled to pass judgment on Japanese history textbooks and to parse every word of Japanese official statements on World War II.
That’s one fact to keep in mind as you consider the debate over a statement issued Friday by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Some Chinese will criticize Mr. Abe for not apologizing more forcefully for Japan’s aggression; so will some Japanese. Unlike in China, Japanese will not have to fear legal repercussions for criticizing their own leaders.
Will their critique have merit? In his statement, Mr. Abe notes that Japan “has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” a position he says “will remain unshakable into the future.” Sadly, he couldn’t bring himself to repeat that apology.
On balance, though, Mr. Abe’s statement is far more conciliatory and less nationalistic than his critics feared it would be. He acknowledges the “immeasurable damage and suffering” Japan inflicted on innocent people in neighboring countries. He expresses gratitude to Chinese, Americans and other former enemies for the tolerance and forgiveness they offered Japan after the war. Most of all he reaffirms that Japan will remain, as it has been for 70 years, committed to peace: “Incident, aggression, war — we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”
No country finds it easy to face the ugliness in its past; if you doubt that, look at the convulsions over Confederate statues here a century and a half after the end of the Civil War. But the effort, while never complete, is essential, not least because other nations will rightly judge a country’s trustworthiness in part on its willingness to confront its own history. If China’s regime were more open to debate and challenge at home, its neighbors might be less suspicious of its expansionist activities in the South China Sea. Japan’s neighbors were attuned to Mr. Abe’s statement in part because of their suspicions over his efforts to reinterpret Japan’s “peace” constitution.
We have supported that reinterpretation, which would allow Japan to help its allies, including the United States, when they come under fire, while preserving Japan’s commitment never to initiate an attack. We’ve also noted that the anxiety aroused by the change makes it all the more important that Japan not attempt to rewrite the history of the 1930s and ’40s. Mr. Abe’s assurances should help in that regard. “We will engrave in our hearts the past,” he said, and pass it down “from generation to generation into the future.”
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