When the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, ending the decades-long monopoly of the Liberal Democratic Party, there was a general expectation that the new ruling party would revitalise the nation with fresh ideas and policies. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The DPJ has shown little dynamism or imagination and, little more than two years later, the party is on its third prime minister.
Actually, the party's policy of improving relations with other Asian countries is correct. But it has so far been unable to break away from the mentality of the LDP. Japan's relationship with Asia is poisoned by its aggression in the 1930s and 1940s. During the LDP era, Japan was in denial. Now the DPJ has an opportunity to show the world the face of a new Japan, one that is willing to confront its past.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in a meeting on Sunday with Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, called on him to resolve the long-standing issue of compensation for women forced into wartime sex slavery.
The LDP position on these 'comfort women' - which also included women from China and Southeast Asia - has been that the Japanese government was not responsible. Elderly women who survived their years of sexual slavery have been calling for almost 20 years for Japan to acknowledge its responsibility, to apologise, and to pay compensation. In this, they have been joined by United Nations human rights bodies, the US Congress and the European Parliament.
However, the LDP considered the issue 'settled' in the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 and the Japan-Korea normalisation treaty of 1965. According to the LDP, Japan has no obligations, legal or moral.
The existence of these women came to global attention only in the 1990s, when some began to come forward with their stories. Then, there were 234 Korean women who identified themselves as former 'comfort women'. Now, only 63 survive. Before long, they will all be gone. Some of them have been holding weekly protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Their protest last week was their 1,000th.
This is a golden opportunity for the DPJ to show that it is different from the LDP. Unfortunately, in his meeting with Lee, Noda resorted to the old LDP dodge of saying that the issue was 'settled'.
This is wrongheaded. The DPJ should acknowledge responsibility and agree to compensate the dwindling number of survivors. With their death will go the last opportunity for Japan to right a dreadful wrong. Noda said that efforts were being made on the matter from a 'humanitarian standpoint'. But that won't solve the problem. What the women want in addition to compensation is an official acknowledgement of the government's responsibility and a formal apology. Noda should offer that.
As long as Japan refuses to come to terms with its past, people in Asia will remain wary of Japanese motives. Japan's future role in Asia depends on its ability to face the past. This is a decision the Japanese government can do something about.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1