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A Japanese apology

From May to August of every year, various obligatory commemorations are held to mark the end of the World War II. In Europe, the conflict came to an end when Nazi Germany surrendered to the Western allies on May 7, 1945 in a school house in Reims, France. Russia celebrates this day with a huge parade in Moscow often taking the occasion to showcase new armaments. This year, it was the new battle tank, the Armata that took center stage.

This year’s celebration, however, was boycotted by the West because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Nonetheless, this did not prevent Russia from staging a truly spectacular show with China’s President Xi Jinping as the principal guest. May 7 in Europe is not celebrated like the way Russia does. Instead, the Normandy invasion of June 6 by the allies is celebrated with a lot of fanfare. All participants in the war in Europe are there to mark the occasion which includes Germany, the principal enemy in the last war.

This may be a little difficult for the likes of China and South Korea to fathom considering what Nazi Germany did during the war, like the murder of more than six million people, not to mention the other wartime atrocities that Germany committed. But perhaps the countries in Europe are more willing to look  into the future rather than the past because of the belief that Germany has done enough to atone for what it has done.

War in the Pacific lasted three months longer. Japan only surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were subjected to the first nuclear bombs in history killing hundreds of thousands of people. Only then did Japan surrender unconditionally on August 15, 1945. This date is commemorated in Japan with solemnity and is eagerly awaited by its neighbors for signs of what they term as acts of contrition.

The one held a few days ago was no different. Prime Minister Abe once again expressed the traditional remorse but stopped short of offering his personal apology which was what South Korea and China had been waiting for. Emperor Akihito also expressed his remorse for what happened during the Second World War—the first for the Emperor. Of the many countries in Asia that Japan invaded and occupied during the Second World War, only the Philippines seems to have come to terms with what Japan did. Although the country does not commemorate the end of the War, the surrender of the USAFFE forces in Bataan on May 9, 1942 is celebrated every year together with the Ambassador of Japan in attendance. Nowhere in Asia is this done except in the Philippines.

The country also suffered the brutality of Japanese occupation culminating in the Battle for Manila in 1945 wherein about 100,000 civilians were killed by the Japanese. Yet it is able to move on.  Not so the Chinese and Koreans. For the Chinese, the war started much earlier. Depending on one’s reckoning, it could be 1931 or 1937. The war there was fought with much brutality characterized by the so-called rape of Nanking and the notorious medical experiments by the Japanese Army in Manchuria. Both China and Japan are still unable to come to terms with what happened during the last war. It still affects their bilateral relations and by extension, their conflict in the East China Sea.

For South Korea, the issue is a lot more complicated. It involves the cruel colonization of Korea by Japan which the Koreans up to this time have not forgotten. The two countries which are ironically both allies of the United States and both democratic cannot seem to come to terms with their relationship. Their relationship is still stuck in a time warp defined by what happened in the past.

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One of the more controversial activities of Japanese politicians is visiting the Yasukuni Shrine where about 2.5 million Japanese war dead are enshrined including more than 20 war criminals. South Korea and China—and to a certain degree, the United States—are the most vocal critics of this practice. To them, visits to the shrine clearly show attempts by Japanese politicians to whitewash the past and distort history. There are clearly many and varied reasons why the Japanese continue to do this. One reason perhaps is religion. As it happens, the Japanese practice ancestral worship.

It is clear, however, that there are Japanese politicians who do not think that Japan has anything to be apologetic about. These people seem to forget that the victors do not only get the spoils of war but also get to write the history. So it is probably better for Japan to express its sincerest apologies and stop denying what clearly happened during the war and move on.

Eventually, China and South Korea will be deprived of a reason to complain and will be forced to rethink their positions. Japan today is different country. It is now prosperous and democratic. It also has a pacifist constitution which Prime Minister Abe is trying to tinker with on account with its standoff with China in the East China Sea.

In spite of this, however, a sizable portion of the Japanese public are clearly opposed to what Prime Minister Abe is doing. China, on the other hand, which was invaded by Japan in the 1930s and humiliated by the Western powers in the last 200 years, is resurgent and powerful. It is also claiming 90 percent of the South China Sea and it is behaving like Japan in the 1930s.

Times have really changed.

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