Gentlemen of Japan

August 01, 2007

Japanese voters repudiated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday - and in no uncertain terms - over economic mismanagement. But if it slows down his desire to remilitarize Japan, that can only be a good consequence.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost control of the upper house of parliament, and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is foursquare against Mr. Abe's nationalist tendencies.

An immediate result may be the withdrawal of Japanese ships from the Indian Ocean once their authorization expires in November. They are there ostensibly to help combat terrorism, but critics see them as token gestures of support for the U.S. war in Iraq.

Mr. Abe and his allies - including many in the Bush administration - believe that 60 years after the end of World War II, it is time for Japan to take on the normal burdens of defense, much as Germany has. And they would be right, except for one important condition: Unlike Germany, Japan has refused to come to terms with its wartime history. That must come first.

On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives called on Japan to apologize for its treatment of an estimated 200,000 "comfort women," or sex slaves, during the war. As skeptical as we are of congressional resolutions regarding other countries' histories, it was interesting to see the Japanese government immediately express its regret - over the resolution, not over the use of comfort women.

In fact, over the years, various Japanese leaders have offered pro forma apologies to those abused by imperial forces, but they were marked by their evident insincerity. Mr. Abe himself apologized, grumpily, to the comfort women last spring - and then immediately went on to say he doubted that they had been coerced into the army's brothels.

To some Americans, this may all seem somewhat academic and beside the point - but in the Philippines and China and Korea, the refusal of Japan to own up to its war crimes is still a very real issue.

An unrepentant and remilitarized Japan would create nothing but bad feelings and trouble in East Asia. Of course Japan should one day conduct itself as a normal country would. The place to begin is in coming to terms with its history - as a normal country would.

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