It is a bitter quarrel that seems fated never to be resolved.
At issue is whether Japan has confronted its aggressive and oppressive past, and apologized for the death and devastation that the Japanese military visited upon its neighbors, particularly China and Korea, from 1895 to 1945.
Many Americans, Koreans, and Chinese contend that Japan has not been sufficiently repentant for its offenses. To a lesser extent, Southeast Asians, Australians and former European colonists agree.
Fifteen days ago, Jennifer Lind, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, wrote in the Washington Post that Japanese “denials and equivocations about the past undermine the political and military support that Japan will need to manage the troubles ahead.”
The North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which speaks for Pyongyang, asserted last week that “Japanese imperialists” had imposed decades of the “harshest and most barbarous” rule on Korea from 1906 to 1945. KCNA demanded that “Japanese reactionaries should make an apology and reparation for the monstrous crimes.”
In South Korea, the English-language Korea Herald declared: “Public sentiment against Japan has worsened in recent years due to Japan’s repeated claim to sovereignty over Korea’s easternmost islets … its distortion of historical facts, and failure to apologize to Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II.”
Xinhua news agency suggested that keeping a spotlight on Japan was intended to generate support for the nation’s military forces. Xinhua quoted a university student at an exhibit depicting the Japanese invasion of 1937: “We must make our country strong to avoid a repeat of the past.”
Yet the record shows that Japanese leaders have rendered more than 50 apologies of all sorts, beginning with that by then-Japanese emperor Hirohito when he called on General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the Allied Occupation, a month after Japan’s surrender to end World War II in 1945.
“I come before you to offer myself to the judgement of the powers you represent,” the emperor said, “as one to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of the war.”
Similarly, former Japanese prime minister Shigeru Yoshida, in accepting the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, referred to the war and said: “It is with feelings of sorrow that we recall the part played in that catastrophic human experience.”
The apologies peaked in the 1990s, during which half of them were delivered, most likely for two reasons: Japan’s wartime generation had begun to pass from the scene, Hirohito having died in 1989. And Chinese and Korean leaders found that pointing fingers at the Japanese was a useful political diversion at home.
Thomas Berger, professor of international relations at Boston University and an authority on Japan, said in a recent interview with Time that Japan had apologized, “but those apologies have been fumbling and awkward and often undercut by revisionist statements from senior politicians.”
However, he added: “The Koreans and the Chinese bear a large share of the blame” for the continuing controversy because they have shown “very little readiness to accept Japan’s efforts to promote reconciliation and, as a result, those efforts have tended to founder.”
Just what Japan’s critics want in apologies is not clear, raising the suspicion that they would rather have the dispute than a resolution, for their own reasons. Here then is a suggestion, in three parts, for Japan to try to clear things up on its own:
‧ Comfort women: That prostitutes plied their trade with invading Japanese soldiers is not in question. What is disputed is whether innocent women were recruited or were coerced by military authorities into sexual service or were even sold into brothels by impoverished parents. A thorough international investigation would be in order.
‧ Apologies: The Japanese government would compile a record of all the apologies since 1945, with dates, places, who delivered and appropriate quotes, then translate them into Chinese, Korean and English, and publish and distribute those volumes to be retained as references.
‧ Emperor: Ask Japanese Emperor Akihito to go to the Budokan, the Hall of Martial Arts, on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II, to deliver a dignified, but unstinting apology for all of Japan’s transgressions during the time in question.
The chances of this US-style settlement once and for all being undertaken by the Japanese and accepted by the Chinese, Koreans and Europeans are, realistically, somewhere between zero and minus-1,000.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.