Thu, 09 Aug 2001

Old wounds reopened

"I am not glorifying or justifying the past," insists Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of his impending visit to the Yasukuni shrine to his country's war dead, and seven war criminals. As the first premier to pay homage there in 16 years, he is of course resurrecting it, and by that act he will cause deep offense to Japan's Asian neighbors, pouring salt in an unhealed wound that will continue to fester as long as Tokyo refuses to acknowledge or express remorse for the full horror of its war crimes.

If Mr. Koizumi wishes only to show respect for those who sacrificed their lives for the country on the anniversary of Japan's surrender, he can easily do that at the nearby memorial to the unknown soldier. But the Prime Minister has a nationalist tinge, and the Shinto shrine is a symbol of Japan's military history, its triumphalism and its apparent inability to recognize the depth of feeling in nations who were victim to its expansionist ambitions before and during World War II.

It is an attitude that mystifies and in many cases, disgusts not just its Asian neighbors, but the rest of the world. As long as it persists, Japan will never lay the ghost of its past. It can rewrite history in the school textbooks, and feed half-truths to its schoolchildren, but that only sharpens the memories and increases the bitterness of the victims and their survivors.

Underlying these concerns is a deeper unease about Mr. Koizumi's ultimate intentions. He has called for an end to the fiction surrounding the self-defense forces. This is a modern, well-equipped army which he believes should take part in international peacekeeping operations. He wants to revise Japan's pacifist constitution, though he insists that it will remain non- nuclear and the principles of Japan as a peaceful country are unchanged.

Those ambitions might create less distrust in the region if they were made by the leader of a country which admits the war crimes of the past and makes a serious effort to ensure the younger generation can learn from the lessons of history. But against a background of increasing militarism among factions of the population, such policies can only worry and anger Japan's neighbors. Beijing has warned Tokyo of an impending rift in Sino- Japanese relations, South Korea has frozen military exchanges and canceled plans to open its market to some Japanese goods.

Germany long since set out to atone for its war-time sins with a frankness and contrition which has won the respect of the world. Japan's own role as an economic world power continues to be blighted by its refusal to confront the horrors of its dark past.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong