01/31/2014 05:26 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

It's All About History

For the three key nations of East Asia to move forward, Japan must confront its modern history.

The American 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, two of America's closest allies -- Japan and Korea -- are now looking daggers at each other. They host around 38,000 and 28,500 U.S. military personnel, respectively.

Western pundits have sought to defuse the tension on pragmatic grounds. For example, an editorial in The New York Times wrote, "Instead of harping on history, China and Japan should tackle concrete issues to reconcile their differences -- and there aren't that many." It sounds quite reasonable, doesn't it? Except it glosses over a genuine and important need for these nations to come to terms with their past.

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 to this day. Ditto for a series of Japanese aggressions 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 apologize for the brutalities of its colonial rule and the atrocities of its war crimes. And the 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 the 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, e.g. Emperor Hirohito's remark to the visiting Korean president 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 German chancellor surprised everyone by kneeling before the Warsaw monument commemorating Jewish resistance. Imagine Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, doing the same at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall -- would the Chinese still complain about the "quality" of Japanese apologies? Unfortunately, Abe has chosen to visit the Yasukuni shrine (where Class A war criminals are honored) instead.

To complicate matters further, repeated provocations by right-wing politicians have signaled to the rest of Asia that the Japanese don't really mean what they say. The worst recent example is that of the mayor of Osaka, 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 which were well documented by the American, 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 people who believe the massacre is a fabrication.

All this helps to explain why the small islets of Diaoyus and Dokdo (Senkakus and 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 the Second World War 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 made clear that China and 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."[1] 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. Unfortunately, Prime Minister 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 unveiled a rather aggressive plan for military build-up. His provocations make it difficult for his counterparts in China and 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 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: the former could access the world's largest growth market while the latter benefit from the 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 which 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 the U.S. hegemony, Japan also has a vital role to play in bridging the gap between the two superpowers. Believe us, China and Korea also want to forgive, forget, and move forward. We sincerely hope our beloved neighbors agree.

Notes: An earlier version of this column has appeared in The Straits Times, a Singaporean newspaper, which has given permission to reprint the column. The original version has been co-authored with Dr. Young-oak Kim of Hanshin University.
[1] Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature, Allen Lane, London, p. 543