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Japan must take responsibility for its past

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.(AFP/Getty Images)

JAPAN'S prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is slated to visit Boston Sunday at the start of a weeklong US trip that will showcase just how remarkable the US-Japan alliance is. In the 70 years since World War II, one of America's greatest enemies has transformed into one of its most important allies.

Some of the biggest security challenges in the world are in Japan's backyard: an increasingly assertive China, a nuclear-armed North Korea, and a Russian president who respects few boundaries. Managing those problems successfully requires a strong and capable Japan. Meanwhile, the economic rules of the world are being rewritten with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. From trade to climate change to nuclear nonproliferation, Japan is a key player.

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That's why it's so unfortunate that Abe's visit will be overshadowed by one thing and one thing only: his view of history.

As he dines at Secretary of State John Kerry's house, speaks at Harvard's Kennedy School Forum, and, later in the week, becomes the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of Congress, people will be distracted by this question: Will he apologize to women from South Korea and elsewhere who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II?

Abe hails from a political faction in Japan that downplays past atrocities. It denies that Japan's military created "comfort stations" for its soldiers, suggesting instead that they were merely brothels run by Korean syndicates. Some also advocate removing references to the 1937 massacre in Nanking, China, from textbooks. Japanese writers who have published confessions by Japanese soldiers admitting involvement in these crimes have received threats from their country's far-right groups.

Officials in Abe's administration say that Japan has already apologized numerous times, and that no apology has satisfied South Korea. It's true. From 1993 to 2010, Japanese officials issued approximately 20 statements of apology and remorse. The government also helped establish the Asian Women's Fund, a quasi-governmental entity that paid medical bills for former "comfort women" out of government funds and raised private donations to compensate the women for their suffering. Women were also sent personal letters of remorse signed by Japan's prime minister at the time.

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But in South Korea, where national pride is built atop resentment of a former colonial occupier, women who accepted funds from Japan were excoriated in the press. Many demanded that the Japanese government make more far-reaching admissions of responsibility, and that compensation come from government coffers, not private donations.

Instead, Japan has done just the opposite. While Abe has said he will uphold past apologies, he has also made it clear that he does not believe that Japan's military was responsible for the tragedy that befell "comfort women." Abe's stance reflects the fact that many in Japan have either grown tired of showing remorse for the past, or never felt that remorse in the first place.

Japan's view of history matters today because it is an obstacle to better relations with South Korea, a neighboring democracy and US ally that is also key to addressing security challenges in the region. During the era of apologies in the 1990s, South Korea and Japan took significant steps toward building a better working relationship. But over the past four years, relations have hit rock bottom.

Indeed, just as the European Union would have been impossible without Germany's widely accepted admission of guilt for the Holocaust, a new and much-needed security alliance between democratic countries in Asia will be impossible as long as Japan is viewed as a denier of its past abuses.

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Even if Abe's views were generally validated by historians outside Japan — and they are not — it would still be in Japan's interests to send a message of mutual respect to its neighbors. What could be the harm in saying words that might bring relief to a handful of traumatized, elderly women who may not live to hear another Japanese prime minister say them?

And while it is true that Japan cannot force forgiveness out of the hearts of those women, or South Koreans in general, gestures by Japanese officials can leave the door open for such reconciliation to take place in the future.

A powerful, confident country can afford to make such gestures. Japan's failure to do so would raise questions about the country's ability to be a leader in the region and the world.

If anyone should understand Japan's internal struggle over the proper amount of remorse to show, it's the United States. The United States, too, harbors a powerful faction that believes strong, confident nations don't dwell on their mistakes. After all, a political candidate in the last presidential election — Mitt Romney — ran on a platform of "No Apology." The nation has even struggled over whether to apologize to Japan for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Of all countries, the United States should understand that Japan was not only a brutal occupier and perpetrator of atrocities during World War II. Japanese people were also victims of their own irresponsible leaders, who led them into a catastrophic war. That said, it's current leader must make amends.

Japan’s incredible rise from the ashes of that war into a peaceful democracy that built the world’s second largest economy should be what we mark in this 70th anniversary year. It’s a shame that this celebration will be diluted by the understandable focus on what Japan’s prime minister has said — or not said — about the past.