The issue of Japan's apology for invading China from 1931 to 1945 and occupying Korea from 1910 to 1945 just won't go away, for two reasons:
-- The Chinese, South Koreans and North Koreans don't want the issue resolved because it has been a useful weapon to hammer Japan for political and economic concessions and divert attention from domestic troubles such as unemployment, corruption or repression.
-- The Japanese, despite repeated apologies over the years, have been singularly inept in putting the dispute to rest, with muted and often grudging expressions of remorse, failing to take credit for economic aid to Asians, and a general lack of forceful communication.
One way to cleanse this festering sore before it erupts into conflict would be to have Emperor Akihito of Japan intervene with a carefully crafted, definitive, and final apology. The Japanese government would reinforce that by compiling and publishing a record of apologies and establishing a "truth commission" to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
For their part, the Chinese, South Koreans and North Koreans would demonstrate their willingness to bring this sorry quarrel to an end by agreeing beforehand to accept Japanese contrition and to consider the discord settled once and for all.
US academic Jane Yamazaki, of Wayne State University in Michigan, has written a book on this question. Yamazaki argues: "If one apologizes to someone who does not want to accept the apology, you can apologize over and over to no avail. For an apology to succeed, the recipient [and audience] must be willing to accept the apology." She concludes: "It is not a one-way exercise."
Ian Buruma, a prolific author on Asia, asks whether China would close the question if Japan met all of Beijing's demands. "Probably not," he says in Britain's Financial Times. "These outbursts of emotional and sometimes violent nationalism in China take place partly because they are the only expression of public protest the government allows."
In the latest exchange, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan told Asian and African leaders in Indonesia that Japan has engraved in its mind "feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology" and has adopted the "principle of resolving all matters by peaceful means."
The prime minister then met with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who did not accept the apology. Instead, Hu told Koizumi, "I would like you to recognize history correctly and I would like you to translate your remorse into actual action."
Among other things, he asserted that Japan should recognize China's claim to Taiwan, the country Japan ruled from 1895 to 1945. Likewise, President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea has underscored Korean ambivalence toward Japan's apologies. In a speech, Roh first praised prime minister Tomiichi Murayama for apologizing in 1995 and prime minister Keizo Obuchi for joining a new partnership with Korea in 1998.
Roh noted that he and Koizumi had called for an "Age of Peace and Prosperity in Northeast Asia" in 2003 and proclaimed "I would not make a diplomatic issue" of historic problems. Then he reversed himself, asserting that Japanese "need to find out the truth about their past, reflect on it, and make a genuine apology as well as reparations if need be."
A fair share of the blame for this impasse must fall to Japanese who have been unwilling to point to their constructive efforts to atone for their misdeeds.
"It has been a reality for more than 30 years," says Michael Berger, a US consultant in Tokyo, "but it is largely unknown or unacknowledged."
Berger pointed to "all the investments, technology transfers, human support in engineers and technicians and other Japan-funded and managed projects that have profoundly improved the lives of local people across Asia."
Emperor Akihito could deliver the ultimate apology on Aug. 15 when Japan holds its memorial service to mark the end of World War II. Only the emperor has the standing as the symbol of the nation and head of state to speak for all of Japan..
Many Japanese contend that the emperor should be above politics. A precedent was set, however, in 1945 when the emperor's father, Emperor Hirohito, ordered a divided government to end the war.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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