Defusing Sino-Japanese Tension

Japan can go far to heal wounds by confronting its wartime behavior

The Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry is on a nasty trajectory, thanks to ugly populist politics on both sides. It places at risk not only mutually prosperous trade and capital flows -- China last year usurped the U.S. as Japan's largest trading partner -- but future security and prosperity throughout Asia. Japan's historical insensitivity about its wartime outrages and China's tendency to let anti-Japanese sentiment run off the rails, sometimes for calculated diplomatic gain, grow more intolerable by the year. Breaking this cycle requires the Japanese to more accurately portray the country's militaristic past in school textbooks and some imaginative thinking about new ways to properly honor the nation's war dead. True, the wounds cut deep here, but remember that Germany and France managed remarkable national reconciliations against similar odds.

Much of this burden falls to Japan. The creation of a Japanese textbook commission, with reputable Japanese, Chinese, and Korean historians, might result in a more honest rendering of Japan's annexation of Korea, brutal occupation of China, and the 1937 mass killings in Nanking. Tokyo also needs an alternative memorial site to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's 2.4 million war dead since 1853 (including convicted World War II war criminals) are honored. Nobody should criticize Japan for honoring its fallen warriors. Yet Yasukuni is just too intimately linked to Shinto-inspired, Emperor-worshipping ideologies that led Japan astray. A less emotive memorial like the U.S. Arlington National Cemetery is worth a serious look. So, too, are the legitimate financial claims by Chinese and Korean sex slaves and forced laborers from that era whose lives were cruelly derailed.

It's the right thing to do -- and smart. Otherwise, Tokyo will always be subject to anti-Japanese flair-ups on the mainland over issues that have nothing to do with the past. Some Chinese officials have already cited Tokyo's unwillingness to confront its wartime behavior as grounds to veto a Japanese seat in an expanded U.N. Security Council. That's rough given Japan's six decades of responsible foreign relations, massive development aid to China, and strong financial support for the UN. Smoothing Sino-Japanese relations will be tough given their rivalry for leadership and economic dominance in Asia. But lifting the ill will from a war that ended three generations ago is long overdue.

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