Confronting the past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 October, 1999, 12:00am

Resolutions announced after the cabinet reshuffle by Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi are the first official signals that the country's foreign and defence policies are changing. Tokyo is taking cautious steps towards playing a full role in international affairs.

The North Korean missile test last year may have been the catalyst for a new assertiveness on defence. The decision to bolster self-reliance seems only reasonable following anxious occasions when Pyongyang threatened to repeat the exercise.

But a recent agreement to add four new tanker planes to help improve surveillance and allow Japan's Self-Defence Forces to participate in military exercises abroad, has given rise to fears that a new militarism may be growing.

For some time Japan has been edging away from its pacifist world role. Behind this move is more than a wish for direct participation in United Nations peacekeeping forces. Tokyo is also becoming sensitive about its position as China becomes more dominant in world events, and is less willing to play piggy-in-the-middle in disagreements between its major ally, the United States, and Beijing.

Although the US alliance is the mainstay of Japanese foreign policy, the country is anxious to forge a new relationship with the mainland as part of a plan to redefine its international role.

That is unlikely to be achieved, however, until Japan confronts its past, and fully apologises for the crimes committed in World War II. Tokyo's unwillingness to face up to the wrongs of the past, and its persistence in glossing over its role in the war to young Japanese, is a subject of some distress.

Until these issues are tackled, even the most delicate moves towards a more robust defence policy will be looked on with suspicion on the mainland and elsewhere.



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