NEARLY five decades after hostilities ended, Japan is still haunted by World War II. Despite having transformed itself into the most democratic nation in Asia, it is distrusted by its neighbors because of its continued failure to accept responsibility for aggression in the 1930s and '40s.
The new coalition government's decision to apologize formally for the Imperial Army's wartime atrocities is a watershed in postwar Eastern Asian relations - a giant step toward enabling Japan to play a more constructive international role.
Japan is synonymous with rapid economic success, and its citizens enjoy a broad range of political rights and civil liberties. Their experience sharply refutes the claim heard in Malaysia, Singapore, and other developing countries that democracy consists of alien Western values and is incompatible with economic growth.
Tokyo is uniquely positioned to spread democratic values and anchor collective security arrangements, easing tensions in the area and assisting the United States in peacekeeping efforts. But it has a credibility problem with its Asian neighbors. Few truly fear another attempt at military conquest but, for many, Tokyo's insensitivity toward war victims remains deeply disturbing. Apologies to these countries have not been adequate.
Japan has never undertaken a full and honest examination of the fiercely nationalistic militarism that led the Imperial Army to establish a puppet state in Manchuria in 1931, to invade China in 1937, and to begin rampaging across Southeast Asia and the Pacific in 1940.
Japanese troops were not just an occupying force - they raped or killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, conducted cruel biological experiments on prisoners of war, and humiliated entire nations. Some 100,000 Chinese civilians were killed in the chilling 1937 Rape of Nanjing alone.
FOLLOWING the war, the US imposed a constitution that renounced war and prohibited Japan from maintaining armed forces. America agreed to protect Japan and help rebuild its bombed-out cities, leaving it free to achieve the most spectacular economic rise in history.
Not until January 1992 did the government admit that the Imperial Army had a role in forcing hundreds of thousands of Korean, Chinese, and other Asian women to work as "comfort women" for its soldiers. And the Japanese government refuses to characterize the mass rapes as a war crime. The victims were never compensated, and the only recourse for scores of elderly Korean women seeking reparations from Tokyo is to subject themselves to humiliating public demonstrations.
The Education Ministry continues to ban textbooks containing balanced accounts of the war. Since the early 1960s, the ministry has struck down successive versions of 80-year-old historian Saburo Ienga's textbook, even after he toned down the truth about his country's aggression. The final blow came in March, when the Supreme Court held such censorship to be constitutional.
The government also perpetuates crude stereotypes of Japanese xenophobia through its continued poor treatment of the Korean minority, many of whom trace their ancestry in Japan over two or three generations. Ethnic Koreans until recently had to be fingerprinted, and they still face other forms of official discrimination as well as social ostracization.
The Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled continuously from 1955 until voters turned it out of office in June, generally had little inclination for greater Japanese engagement abroad. Moreover, because for decades the government papered over the past, many Japanese citizens continue to seek some form of assurance that their country has, indeed, forsworn aggression. This leads to a reluctance to send troops overseas, causing embarrassment in times of crisis.
During the Gulf war, fierce opposition forced the Japanese government to shelve plans to send 2,000 noncombat troops to the region. Many said such a deployment would violate the pacifist constitution. It was not until long after the fighting ended that the government provided much-needed mine sweepers, and it had to be prodded into making a belated $13 billion contribution to the Allied effort.
The younger generation of politicians forming the backbone of Japan's new ruling coalition want to shape a more assertive foreign policy. This would include holding a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, participating in UN missions in trouble spots, and taking more decisive, independent viewpoints on international affairs issues.
To accomplish all this, these politicians must assure wary Japanese citizens and their Asian neighbors that the country has fully exorcised any latent nationalist tendencies.
That can only occur through discussion and repentance, including adequate compensation to individual victims. Only then can Japan properly lay the tragedy of World War II to rest.