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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

History haunts U.S., Japan
Japan must eventually come to terms with past

 •  Complexities of Pacific theater need to be told

By David Polhemus

TOKYO — The truth will set you free. Conversely, until Japan faces the truth about its past, it will remain imprisoned by it.

Official reverence for the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are among the honored dead, still draws condemnation abroad.

Associated Press library photo

For some reason, the Japanese have not understood who benefits from the process of apology and atonement. It is not those who were ravaged by the excesses and the atrocities committed by Japan in World War II who would truly benefit if Japan were to come to terms with its past.

It is the Japanese, not as individuals, but as a nation. Japan is stuck fast, mired in a political, economic, philosophical and moral sink hole from which it cannot find the collective will to extricate itself.

For those who know and respect the Japanese, this is hard to witness, for we know this is a journey they must walk by themselves, for themselves.

The problem is fundamental. Until the Japanese understand who they have been, they can't understand who they are, where they should be headed and how to get there. It's really that simple.

It isn't just the trading relationships that Japan struggles to enjoy with the neighbors it harmed 50 years ago, although many Japanese see it in such limited terms. It is Japan's very political system, sinking under its own weight because political leaders can't see past the short-term advancement of their own self-interest. They can't see it because a vision of the greater good doesn't exist.

Japan's new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, enjoys remarkable popularity because people think he's the man who at last can bring badly needed fiscal and political reform. But Koizumi is a leader of the most conservative faction in his coalition, the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party.

Koizumi's approval rating has soared above 85 percent while that of his predecessor, the woefully inadequate Yoshiro Mori, who had difficulty even in the timing of his resignation, had sunk to 6 percent by the end.

This flash of popularity, says former U.N. ambassador Yoshio Hatano, "demonstrates how immature the Japanese democracy is." Perhaps the difficulty, he goes on, is that "we have not been trained to think for ourselves."

The trouble with a popularity rating as high as Koizumi's is that it can only drop. Indeed, Professor Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies here, gives Koizumi just three to six months.

If he could somehow deliver reform, the country would benefit, and he might become a long-lasting leader, Shiratori said. Otherwise, he is likely to be dumped in the usual 12 to 18 months.

But that reform won't happen. Koizumi is under attack from his own party by way of a savage innuendo campaign against his foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka.

And Koizumi himself has decided to risk the very political coalition from which he governs by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15. This is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the memories of those who died for their country, beginning with the Meiji restoration in 1868.

The rub is that the Komei Party, a Buddhist and pacifist party that entered into a coalition with Koizumi's LDP to keep it in power when it lost its outright majority, has threatened to bolt and dissolve the coalition if Koizumi visits the shrine. If reform were Koizumi's priority, he would not risk this.

What's wrong with an official visit to Yasukuni? If one were to compare this shrine with, say, the national cemetery at Punchbowl, and further to assume that the United States had lost World War II, then it's reasonable to assume that the victors would be highly critical of the symbolism connected to any official reverence paid at Punchbowl. That's not because of the thousands of unremarkable war dead interred there, but because a few of the graves no doubt would mark war criminals.

Only losers have war criminals.

Importantly, if Japan were to bring itself to the kind of self-examination that atonement requires, the Japanese presumably could honor the general rank and file of war dead at Yasukuni without the kind of condemnation it causes now.

No longer the economic whiz kid, Japan's growth rate is declining. Ultimately it must become an integral part of Asia to get back on track and reach its economic potential. This won't happen without the healing that the atonement process could bring, and that must come from within.

Japan has a great opportunity to heal its relationship with its neighbors. It can't do that as long as it remains in abject denial of its past, as its incomplete history textbooks so clearly demonstrate.

Japan has begun a debate on its military future. Japan is suffering from a small power mentality when the reality is that it's a big power.

Its bid to become a member of the United Nations Security Council, certainly justified by Japan's economic clout, becomes a joke when it remembers that it can't provide peacekeeping troops for U.N. operations.

Can Japan adjust to this fact by repealing its Constitution's Article 9, by which Japan's military exists for defensive purposes only? Probably not; the process is too difficult, and the opposition to strong.

There's a better case for reinterpretation of the article to permit projection of force abroad. The argument centers on an oxymoron known as collective self-defense, whereby Japan could commit to defending any other country that was committed to defending Japan.

The problem is that this rationalization is pretty much the one that made Japan an aggressive colonial power in the 1930s. Its neighbors will have none of it until they perceive that Japan has changed fundamentally.

Japan doesn't have to reinvent the wheel here. Germany has dealt with its past with great wisdom, humility and seriousness. Germany has none of Japan's problems today; it has the respect of its neighbors and is the leading power in the European Union.

Germany was the biggest beneficiary of that process. It's what Japan must do, and soon.

Advertiser Editorial Writer David Polhemus has been traveling in Asia as a Jefferson Fellow from the East-West Center.