Japan must eliminate distractions

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Japan must eliminate distractions

Japan has a problem. If it wishes to lead the nations of East Asia into a new age of regional cooperation, it will have to put the past behind it and decide what course will better promote its long-term interests: quarreling with its neighbors over ownership of disputed islands (Dokdo/Takeshima and Diaoyu/Senkaku) and the content of textbooks or pursuing a policy of reconciliation designed to promote Japan’s leadership and regional cooperation, a proclaimed goal of the Japanese government.

Once again, Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea is on the rocks over the content of history textbooks and disputed territories. Specifically, the issue is a repeat of claims in Japan’s Ministry of Education approved textbooks that the tiny pile of rocks in the Sea of Japan (which Korea calls the “East Sea”) known as Takeshima (or Dokdo to Koreans) belongs to Japan. Both the South and North Korean governments energetically claim the islets are sovereign Korean territory. This time the furor erupted in July and continues with both sides filing diplomatic protests and recalling their diplomatic representatives.

Three developments are certain to emerge from this latest clash. First, there will be no durable solution and the status quo will endure with South Korea continuing to occupy the disputed territory. Second, there will be no armed clash because both nations’ interests are best served by avoiding war and instead cooperating, as is evident from their impressive record in trade, cultural and educational exchanges, and security. Finally, politicians on both sides will benefit by capitalizing on surges in nationalistic sentiment.

Actually, one of the motivations for such outbursts continues to be Japan’s vacillating interpretations of its justification or guilt for having conquered its neighbors in the early 20th century to build an empire, among other issues. It would be daunting for any to argue that these disputes have promoted the long-term foreign policy goals of the participants. If anything, domestic political dynamics appear to serve as a catalyst that intensifies the quarreling nations’ political leadership’s response to disputes.

Politicians, Japanese or Korean, make comments to spark or seize on bilateral disputes over Japan’s imperial legacy to further their own political fortunes by aligning themselves with the subsequent nationalistic outbursts. After each side has vented a verbal tsunami of emotionally charged nationalistic rhetoric, diplomats, at the behest of their political superiors, are called upon to calm the situation and to resume bilateral cooperation.

Given Japan’s aspirations to play a leading role in forging regional cooperation in East Asia, its interests would appear to be best served by breaking this unproductive cycle. Obviously, neither Japan nor its neighbors benefit from these outbursts of nationalism. The government in Tokyo needs to formulate a consistent policy aimed at promoting regional cooperation.

Frankly stated, Japan does not have such a policy. Rather, it has altered between repeated official apologies to its neighbors, which are eventually undercut by “unofficial” contradictory words and deeds. For example, the Japanese government officially refuses to compensate those filing claims against it because of alleged ill treatment during Japan’s imperial period. The government’s official explanation is that all claims were settled by the 1952 peace treaty. Yet the government has provided compensation when Japanese courts have ordered it to do so. This is but one example of perceived duplicity in Japan’s official policy, a perception that greatly complicates Japan’s efforts to put its imperial legacy behind it. It also convinces Japan’s neighbors that official apologies are insincere, a particularly grievous allegation within the context of East Asian cultural values.

A number of apparent reasons suggest why Japan has been unable to forge a consistent policy of reconciliation with its neighbors. Japanese politicians are deeply divided into right and left wing camps. Those on the right believe that Japan was justified in building an empire and thus has nothing to apologize for, while the left argues the contrary. This dueling erodes political party cohesion which contributes to either or both the political inability and reluctance of political leaders to take decisive steps toward forging a consistent policy of reconciliation similar to that achieved by Germany after World War II. If anything, Germany’s misconduct under Hitler was just as bad, possibly even worse than that of imperial Japan.

But Germany, unlike Japan, soon after the end of World War II was determined to move forward. This involved recognizing the former political leadership’s misdeeds and consistently implementing a policy of reconciliation that ranged from official apologies to monetary compensation. Germany today plays a leading role in the European Union.

In other words, Japan would do well to rise above the relatively petty arguments over disputed islands, relinquish its role in editing textbooks, a responsibility that has even deeply offended the people of Okinawa not to mention China and Korea, and stop attempting to rationalize prior misconduct. It also needs to revisit the issue of whether official visits to Yasukuni Shrine promote the Japanese people’s welfare. If the emperor’s and prime minister’s apologies about imperial Japan’s legacy have been sincere, and there is every reason to believe they are, then the Japanese government’s policies and deeds should be consistent with these apologies.

Perceptions outside Japan are that there are major discrepancies between Japan’s official words and its deeds. This perception among Japan’s neighbors is seriously impeding their acceptance of Japan as a nation worthy of following into a new era of regional cooperation. Only after Japan has effectively erased this perception will prospects improve for Japan playing a leading regional role in East Asia. Otherwise, China, possibly with South Korea’s active support, will seize the opportunity and move to become the leader of a regional organization.

For the Japanese people, the question is what will better serve their nation’s future clinging to the past or leading East Asia into a new era of regional cooperation? Only the Japanese people can answer this question.

* The author is the dean for research evaluation and professor of Korean studies at Akita International University, Japan.

by C. Kenneth Quinones
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