History enshrined

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2007, 12:00am

Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to visit Japan next week at the invitation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the first such high-level visit in seven years. Both sides want it to be a success so that relations, badly strained during the leadership of Junichiro Koizumi, can be improved. Mr Wen has described his forthcoming visit as an 'ice-thawing' trip, following Mr Abe's 'ice-breaking' trip to Beijing in October. The relationship is now at a delicate stage, and both sides hope to return to a state of normality.

China's leaders refused to meet Mr Koizumi after he insisted on making annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead, including executed war criminals, are enshrined. To finesse the history issue, Mr Abe has declined to say whether he will visit the shrine while in office. But the situation is still delicate, especially since Mr Abe has repeatedly denied that the Japanese military was involved in forcibly recruiting women to work as sex slaves during the second world war.

Only a few days ago, documents were released showing that, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese government was involved in planning the honouring of war criminals at Yasukuni. Government officials asked the shrine authorities to handle the matter discreetly and not to make public announcements about it. Previously, government officials had taken the position that, since the shrine was privately operated, they could not tell the shrine authorities what to do.

Although Mr Abe has responded to the latest disclosures by saying that it was the shrine authorities - not the government - who made the final decision to honour the war criminals, it is clear that the government initiated the whole process. This suggests that Japanese officials, while saying that they accepted the decisions of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, never really accepted that Japan was in the wrong.

The one Japanese administration that seemed to issue an unequivocal apology for Japan's acts in the second world war was that of the socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, in office from 1994 to 1996.

It has frequently been pointed out that, unlike Germany, its wartime ally, Japan has never come to terms with its responsibility for the Pacific war. In Germany it's a crime to deny the Holocaust, while in Japan, government officials and ordinary citizens routinely deny all kinds of things, such as the 'comfort women' and the Nanking massacre. And while the German government has apologised and paid compensation for forced labour, Tokyo fights such cases in court.

Only last week, a Japanese court rejected a demand for compensation by a group of Chinese forced to work as slave labourers at a Japanese mine during the war. The Miyazaki district court dismissed the suit, which sought damages from the Japanese government and Mitsubishi Metals Corporation, on the grounds that the deadline for filing compensation claims had expired.

As historian Francis Fukuyama wrote recently: 'Japan has never had a genuine internal debate over its degree of responsibility, and has never made a determined effort to propagate an alternative account to that of Yushukan' - the military museum attached to the Yasukuni Shrine, which depicts Japan as a victim of western colonialism eager to help fellow Asian countries counter such oppression.

Japan stresses that, for the past 60 years, it has been a good global citizen, involved in no wars. This is true but, unless Tokyo is prepared to acknowledge its past, the rest of the world may find it difficult to face the future with Japan.

Mr Wen and Mr Abe will, no doubt, seek to resolve major problems besetting them, such as the dispute over gas fields in the East China Sea which, if not resolved, might lead to clashes at sea.

However, the past will never be buried until Japan is willing to bite the bullet and confront it. As the Asahi newspaper said in an editorial on Monday: 'A nation must face up to the facts of history, no matter how painful.'

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator