Ja­pan war his­tory will shadow PM’s US visit next week


Seventy years af­ter the end of World War II, Ja­pan wants to look to the fu­ture but can’t shake off its past. When Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe vis­its the U. S. next week, he will be pro­mot­ing a re­gional free trade pact and stronger de­fense ties with Amer­ica as his gov­ern­ment loosens the shack­les of Ja­pan’s paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion. But his­tory will be fol­low­ing him. And it’s not just Ja­pan’s arch crit­ics on the is­sue, South Korean and main­land China, that will be watch­ing what he says. So will Korean-Amer­i­cans who have cham­pi­oned the cause of for­mer sex slaves of the im­pe­rial Ja­panese mil­i­tary, and the dwin­dling ranks of el­derly U.S. vet­er­ans who suf­fered as pris­on­ers of war.

In an un­usual step, 25 House mem­bers have sent a let­ter to Ja­pan’s am­bas­sador to the U.S., urg­ing Abe to ad­dress sen­si­tive is­sues of his­tory when he be­comes the first Ja­panese leader to ad­dress a joint meet­ing of the U.S. Congress next Wed­nes­day, a day af­ter meet­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

“To ig­nore past atroc­i­ties, Mr. Speaker, is to en­sure a very trou­bling fu­ture,” Demo­cratic Party law­maker Steve Is­rael said in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives this week.

Un­der Abe, Ja­pan’s gov­ern­ment has given an im­pres­sion of apol­ogy fa­tigue.

Since the 1990s, Ja­panese gov­ern­ments have apol­o­gized di­rectly for wartime ag­gres­sion and treat­ment of so-called com­fort women — tens of thou­sands of women across Asia, many of them Kore­ans, who were forced to pro­vide sex to Ja­pan’s front-line sol­diers.

Abe says his gov­ern­ment up­holds those apolo­gies, and he has spo­ken of his “heart­felt sym­pa­thy” for the com­fort women. But he ap­pears re­luc­tant to re­peat an­other apol­ogy him­self, de­spite the com­pli­ca­tions that has caused in Tokyo’s at­tempts to im­prove re­la­tions with Bei­jing and Seoul.

Abe’s hawk­ish rep­u­ta­tion has made him a tar­get of some­times shrill crit­i­cism in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, but he did lit­tle to help mat­ters when he vis­ited a con­tro­ver­sial Tokyo shrine in De­cem­ber 2013 where war crim­i­nals, in­clud­ing wartime Prime Min­is­ter Hideki Tojo, are among those me­mo­rial- ized.

His speech to Congress will be watched for signs of how he might phrase a for­mal state­ment in Au- gust mark­ing the war an­niver- sary.

Ja­panese Am­bas­sador Kenichiro Sasae said Abe’s fo­cus will be on the cur­rent and fu­ture chal- lenges in the U. S.- Ja­pan re­la­tion­ship, i nclud­ing the pending Trans- Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade deal, and mu­tual de­fense guide- lines. Abe’s Cabi­net has re- i nter­preted an ar­ti­cle of its paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion and is push­ing se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion that, if ap­proved by Ja­pan’s par­lia­ment, would al­low Ja­pan in some cir­cum­stances to de­fend U. S. forces if they come un­der attack.

Sasae said he ex­pects Abe will speak about World War II, but added that Congress is not the right place to talk about other coun­tries’ con­cerns over his­tory. “This is not some­thing we need to fo­cus on as a ma­jor agenda be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tokyo,” he said.

Dif­fer­ent Fo­cus for Asia and the U.S.

The war is cer­tainly less of a smol­der­ing is­sue in the U.S. than it is in North­east Asia.

A sur­vey pub­lished this month by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter showed that de­spite the war and the fierce eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the U.S. and Ja­pan in the 1980s and early 1990s, 68 per­cent of Amer­i­cans now trust Ja­pan a great deal, although there’s less sup­port for Ja­pan play­ing a more ac­tive mil­i­tary role in the Asia-Pa­cific.

The U.S. has tens of thou­sands of troops based in Ja­pan and South Korea, and treaty com­mit­ments that could see it drawn into any Ja­pan-China con­flict, so it has a stake in how Tokyo gets on with its neigh­bors.

The U.S. also has a vo­cal Korean-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, mostly first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants, who are us­ing their new­found po­lit­i­cal mus­cle to knock on doors of their U.S. law­mak­ers and gain at­ten­tion to Korean na­tion­al­ist causes, par­tic­u­larly about com­fort women.

Korean-Amer­i­can ac­tivists are plan­ning protests and crit­i­cal press ads for Abe’s visit. One of the 53 Korean com­fort woman sur­vivors, Lee Yong-soo, 87, has been flown to the United States. With a trem­bling voice, she told re­porters Thurs­day on Capitol Hill that Abe was “deny­ing the truth.”

She said at age 16, she had been taken from her home in Korea and shipped to Tai­wan and forced to serve Ja­panese sol­diers, who beat her and used elec­tric shocks on her when she re­sisted. She said the two years of servitude had “de­stroyed her life.” She de­manded Abe make an of­fi­cial apol­ogy.

U.S. vet­er­ans of World War II also have griev­ances, but they are much lower key. Ja­pan’s gov­ern­ment has apol­o­gized to for­mer Amer­i­can pris­on­ers of war, and in re­cent years has paid for “friend­ship vis­its” to Ja­pan for sur­vivors, giv­ing them a more pos­i­tive view of the coun­try.

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