THE forced resignation Saturday of Japan's new justice minister, Shigeto Nagano, for denying Imperial Japan's wartime actions during World War II offers an opportunity to focus on the character of Japanese leadership.
Ex-Minister Nagano's public statements, though not widely supported, should not be written off as the views of a single individual in Japan. His comment that the 1937 massacre known as ``the Rape of Nanjing'' was a fabrication, is the kind of revisionism heard more frequently around the world. It would be wrong enough if such views emerged from the history department at the University of Tokyo. It becomes more serious when the justice minister of one of the Group of Seven nations wants to so rewrite history.
The question is: How deep do tensions about Japanese identity and Japan's role in the world actually run inside the society?
To say that Japanese aggression during World War II was an effort to ``liberate'' Asia from the West reverses positive steps taken last year by then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in admitting his country's aggression. Even if Nagano's comments were made for reasons of honor and face-saving, they do not promote the more open, ``normal'' Japan many of its leaders hope for. Even though withdrawn, these comments do not help Japan play an exemplary role in Asia. They will be read in Asian capitals as a indication that the coalition government of the new Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata has the same right-wing character as the old ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Indeed, given concern in Tokyo over North Korea's nuclear program and the commitment of the US to regional security, one must ask whether Nagano, a former top general, was not signaling a tougher new line in Tokyo. In recent years Japan has developed the most powerful military in Asia.
The long-term issue is the development of nationalist thinking in Japan. Liberal, democratic ideas are under assault globally. The first sign of such a program is a rewriting of history. As historian Eric Hobsbawm notes: ``History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. If there is no suitable past, one can always be invented.''
Why do Japanese schools not teach more of Japan's 20th-century history? Japanese textbooks, for example, contain scant reference to the attack on Pearl Harbor, or to Nanjing, where most historians agree that in 1937 some 150,000 Chinese were killed. Archives in Taiwan and China make this clear. Foreign officials witnessed the execution of 30,000 soldiers and 12,000 civilians.
This kind of nationalism has no place in today's Japan.