Japan can’t forgo its Asian identity

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Japan can’t forgo its Asian identity

Korea-Japan ties have reached a new low. In an address marking the 68th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Korean President Park Geun-hye urged Japanese leaders to demonstrate courage, as well as responsibility and earnest action, to atone for the pain that imperialist Japan had caused Koreans in the past. “What nation or people would consent to the affliction of their soul or removal of a part of their body?” she said while quoting a saying by ancient scholar Yi Am, who likened the nation to a human body and its history to its people’s soul. Park’s censure toward Japan was, however, diplomatically subdued. She did not mention disputes over Dokdo or comfort women. Instead she emphasized the need for bilateral cooperation and the common goals of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia, which cannot be possible without Japan’s addressing its past.

Since taking office in December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited 16 nations, making overseas trips about once a month. He traveled to Southeast Asia, the United States, Mongolia, Russia, Myanmar, and Europe. But he has not visited South Korea and China, Japan’s closest neighbors. It is unclear when the leaders of South Korea, China, and Japan will meet for bilateral or trilateral summit talks, which used to be frequent. Japan’s foreign policy is deadlocked. Despite the long-standing differences, the three nations have put aside political and diplomatic conflicts to maintain peace and stability.

But Japan’s decisive turn to the right is worrisome. The high approval rating for Abe’s cabinet reflects public hope and support for the government in its drive to restore the economy, not its nationalistic plan to revise the pacifist constitution in order to strengthen the military and deny its imperialistic and militant past. Some conservative politicians made public visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, advocating their action as a patriotic move and accusing neighboring states of interfering with their domestic matters. A majority of conservatives and people in Japan have a better and more sensible awareness of history. We believe they will prevent their country from tilting to the extreme right.

Japan enjoyed geopolitical dominance for more than a century. It may be uncomfortable and annoyed by the recent ascent of South Korea and China. But Japan must live in the present. It is heading toward disaster if it aims to turn back the clock and go against the current. Japan historically has been unclear of its identity, moving to and fro between West and East. It must be more definitive in choosing its identity and fate. It must ask itself if it can afford to forgo its Asian identify forever.

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