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Shedding uncool aspects of Japan's past
Publication Date : 14-01-2013
If his government proceeds to review apologies that Japan previously tendered for its World War II aggression, new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be starting his diplomacy with Asian countries on the wrong foot.
His Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has indicated there might be a review of the decision in 1993 to apologise for direct Japanese coercion of 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and other Asian countries into brothels to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II. The so-called "comfort women" issue is not completely settled. In particular, it continues to hang over Japan's relations with South Korea.
Abe says he wants to "take back" Japan as a "normal nation". White-washing the erstwhile Imperial Army's wartime conduct seems a prelude to gaining more support for amending the Constitution and strengthening the Self Defence Forces into a fully operational military.
But Abe should desist from rewriting history by trying to make the Japanese less apologetic for war wrongs. He will only succeed in perpetuating impressions of his country as an unreconstructed militarist state. This will re- inflame nationalist passions in China and South Korea at a time when Japan's disputes over East China Sea islands with those countries have all but broken out in open conflict. To maintain even working ties with them requires sensitive and measured handling, not uncalled-for provocations.
If Abe's goal is to restore Japan's flagging influence in the region, this is simply not the way to achieve it. He might have led the Liberal Democratic Party to a landslide victory last month - owed in part to more conservative nationalistic support among voters - but now in office, he has to take account of the pressing need for good relations with important neighbours. Trade and investment with China and South Korea are vital to revive Japan's lacklustre economy.
It is in Japan's interest, instead, to deepen ties in the region, including those with Southeast Asian countries. When Abe visits Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand later this month, he might have a better sense of the troubling "comfort women" memories that linger in this region as well.
So, Abe should remind his many arch-nationalist and ultra-rightist Cabinet colleagues there are better ways for Japan to exert its influence. Cultivating soft power with a "cool" image will cut no ice internationally if Japan looks like it wants to cling on to less attractive vestiges from its past. Thankfully, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is now seeking to project a moderate image by advocating ties from a "broader and strategic perspective".