Beyond apologies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 1998, 12:00am

THE sudden rise of the yen on the international exchanges probably did more for Japan's relations with South Korea and China this week than any number of political statements by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. However, while the yen remains volatile and Japan's unexpected boost to its neighbours' economic well-being may be short-lived, the effects of Mr Obuchi's apologies for colonial and wartime atrocities will be profound and long-lasting.

Taking the opportunity of Korean President Kim Dae-jung's official visit, Mr Obuchi not only made his country's first written apology to any individual nation for its past brutalities, but did so in a joint declaration previously negotiated with his guest.

The procedure will be repeated when President Jiang Zemin visits Tokyo next month. China should get an apology every bit as profuse as Korea's for the terrible suffering of the Japanese occupation.

That is certainly a good start. More than half a century after it lost the war, Japan's failure to acknowledge the scale of its crimes or to begin to make amends has left Asia bitter and distrustful. Japan's wartime ally, Germany, has not only confronted its past crimes, but paid vast sums in compensation; it has reaped the rewards with its integration in the European Union, NATO and the policy forums of the West. Japan, by contrast, is viewed with distrust even in those countries which have benefited from its investment. Apologies to all the nations of East Asia would vastly improve Tokyo's image around the region.

But mere apologies, however sincerely meant, will hardly be enough to settle the accounts of the 20th century, as Mr Kim put it. The young Korean woman who commented that sooner or later some Japanese politician would 'say something hurtful about the war' was perceptive. There are still all too many Japanese politicians prepared to deny the Nanjing Massacre or to glorify their country's wartime actions.

Even now, there is no sign that Mr Obuchi is prepared to consider government compensation for the thousands of 'comfort women' forced to provide sex for Japan's wartime troops. Tokyo says the issue has been settled under the post-war peace treaties. At the very least, Japan's more open-minded government should address that issue anew. Saying sorry, even in writing, is no substitute for compensation. It is time for Japan to take another, more critical, and more honest look at its own past.