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Politics of apology in the Orient

Thursday's 'remorse' from Japan wasn't enough for China in a key summit.

Never before have the great powers of the Pacific - China, Japan, Russia, and the US - gotten along so well. If only some of them weren't dragging their painful past around with them.

Consider the relations of Japan and China. More than $60 billion in trade passes between them every year, and Japanese government loans and private investment are key to China's rapid economic growth. China, in turn, is the cultural wellspring that has given Japan everything from Buddhism to the tea ceremony to the characters that constitute most of written Japanese.

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That is, of course, ancient history. The problem is what happened earlier this century: Japan's invasions of China, its colonization of Taiwan, and the barbarism it exhibited before and during World War II.

Japan's militaristic past and its ties to Taiwan remain a profound impediment to real partnership between Japan and China. On Saturday, Chinese President Jiang Zemin all but scolded his hosts when asked at a weekend press conference about the Japanese understanding of history. "In Japan there still remain certain people - and certain people in high positions - who continue to distort history and try to gloss over aggression and continue to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and other peoples," he said.

Overcoming these "hurt feelings" is the price of admission to a brave new world of diplomatic linkages around the Pacific. The US-Japan relationship, which includes a mutual defense treaty and massive flows of trade and investment, remains the strong-est, but all the big countries in the region are firming up their ties.

The US and China are growing closer now than at any time since the days of dtente, and Japan and Russia are struggling to resolve a territorial dispute that lingers from World War II so they can proceed to goodies like trade and investment. The Russians and the Chinese are also working on their relationship, as evidenced by Jiang's visit to Moscow before coming to Japan.

From wars to diplomacy

All of these countries have fought cold or hot wars with each other in the last 100 years, a context that makes diplomacy welcome. "There is a current which shows that these powers - the US, Japan, China, and Russia - are sort of groping for a new set of relationships," says Takakazu Kuriyama, Japan's former ambassador to Washington.

But no country has a road map to the future, and Mr. Kuriyama and other experts say the absence of vision shows. The US makes vague noises about an emerging "Pacific community," but no official has articulated where all this nascent peace and cooperation might lead.

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The US-Japan relationship is an unambiguous alliance, but just about all the other ties are described as "partnerships" - a term broad enough not to mean very much. These countries are masking over difficulties that caused wars and tension, as Jiang's mini-lecture suggests, and wrestling with internal politics.

The Japanese have shown that they are able to offer explicit, written expressions of apology if they judge that former victims are truly ready to forgive. Last month, Japan's Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi offered South Korean President Kim Dae Jung just such a statement.

But these gestures require the expenditure of political capital. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party includes conservatives who feel that Japan's heart was in the right place earlier this century and resent the need to bow in contrition. The same goes for vast numbers of veterans' families and goes doubly for nationalist, right-wing activists who find even the LDP too soft on these issues.

The Japanese establishment has judged that the Chinese do not yet deserve a clear-cut apology. China uses history to pressure Japan and China's educational system and its media openly demonize the Japanese.

Japan won't give in

Hisahiko Okazaki, another former ambassador, admires the "maturity" the government here has shown by not giving in to Chinese demands. In an unsigned joint declaration, the Japanese government said it is "keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious suffering and damage that Japan inflicted upon the Chinese people through its aggression against China and expressed deep remorse for this."

Even so, Japanese officials are reluctant to apologize fully, citing a blanket apology by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 and a round of peace treaties beginning in 1951 that settled government-to-government claims for reparations.

Japan's courts, besieged by individuals such as former sex slaves or prisoners of war, have been stalwart in insisting there is no need to assuage the past. All but one of some 40 compensation cases have failed, says Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

Finally, every year or so a Japanese politician makes a statement in defense of Japan's wartime actions, aggravating Chinese and other Asians.

Thorny issue of Taiwan

Another factor in the China- Japan relationship is that many Japanese leaders maintain a special fondness for Taiwan, perhaps the only former Japanese colony whose people think well of their onetime overlords. Now, however, Taiwan presents the thorniest issue in Asia: China wants to regain control, the Taiwanese flirt with declaring independence, and the US is pinned between the horns of a policy in which it supports "one China" but vows to defend Taiwan from aggression.

On Saturday Jiang said China couldn't renounce the use of force in dealing with Taiwan, because it is an issue of "separatism."

Japan's position on Taiwan is carefully ambiguous, but has recently agreed to cooperate with the US in guaranteeing regional security. China reads that to mean "defending Taiwan." In demanding a clear apology for its actions earlier this century, China is in some ways asking Japan to renounce its relationship with Taiwan, notes an Asian diplomat who declined to be identified.

Despite being China's No. 1 trade partner and lead non-Chinese investor in China's growing economy, Japan is apparently unwilling to take that step just now.

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