The recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to the country's war dead and a symbol of Japanese militarism, has riled countries all around the Pacific Rim. Loud protests have been heard from the nations that suffered from Japanese aggression in World War II: China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Only one country has remained silent: the U.S. Considering that 14 of Japan's top war criminals honored at Yasukuni were tried under the U.S. occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur, the silence is stranger still.
The Bush Administration is trying to bolster Japan's strategic military role in Asia. That effort, however, is doomed to failure unless Japan comes to terms with its history. This means admitting to the terrible harm it inflicted in World War II, expressing the proper remorse, and providing its own young people with textbooks that offer a factual account of the atrocities of those years. Washington should end its silence and publicly encourage the Koizumi government to begin to guide Japan through a process of facing its wartime past, as Germany did decades ago.
The Bush Administration and especially the Defense Dept. should realize that unless Japan reaches a rapprochement with its neighbors for its past deeds, Asian countries will be extremely reluctant to accept Japan's regional military leadership anytime soon. "How can we make friends with people who try to forget and ignore the many pains they inflicted on us?" asked President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea, in response to the shrine incident. "How can we deal with them with any degree of trust?"
Koizumi's Yasukuni Shrine visit comes just weeks after South Korea and China lodged a strong protest against new Japanese history textbooks that downplay the forced prostitution of South Korean women during the war and the infamous Rape of Nanking in China, in which 300,000 people perished. A second pilgrimage to the shrine--by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishiharo, Defense Agency Director General Nakatani, and other members of Koizumi's Cabinet on the 56th anniversary of Japan's surrender--further incensed Korea and other nations in Asia. It drove home the notion that the Koizumi government has close ties to extreme Japanese nationalists.
It may be true that no nation handles its historic misdeeds very well. But Japan has done a spectacularly poor job. Its aspirations to world leadership are undermined by its refusal to acknowledge the dark side of its history. America does neither Japan nor itself a favor by ignoring so obvious a breach of international civility.