The memory of a brief conversation nags me whenever I think about Asia's future. The conversation took place shortly after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, during a secret meeting with a leader of China's underground democracy movement. We met in a quiet corner of a Beijing restaurant, where he tapped the table suspiciously to see if it was bugged. This was a man whose vision I admired, so I listened intently when the waitress stepped away and he leaned forward to disclose his plans for promoting human rights.

"We're going to kill Japanese," he said brightly.


"We're going to kill Japanese businessmen. That'll scare them so they won't invest here. And then the government will really be screwed!"

"You're not serious?"

"Of course we're serious. We can't demonstrate these days and we can't publish. The only thing we can do for democracy is kill Japanese businessmen."

I protested that it seemed odd to promote human rights by murdering innocent businessmen. But he just smiled at my narrow-mindedness, with a "you-will-never-understand-Asia" grin.

"They're Japanese," my friend said dismissively. "Japanese devils."

He never did kill anyone. But the vitriol in his voice underscored Asia's historical tensions, which are especially intractable because they exist between peoples, not governments.

While Asia has seemed remarkably peaceful since the end of the Vietnam War, the peace is a fragile one, concealing dormant antagonisms and disputes that could still erupt. Now the recent economic crisis has increased the risk of an explosion. With nations as with households, tempers fray when the money runs out. And insecure regimes may try to boost their legitimacy by picking a fight, distracting discontented citizens with military adventures.

At the heart of the tension in Asia lies Japan's failure to apologize meaningfully for its wartime brutality. While anti-Japan sentiment among the Chinese and Koreans has deeper roots, it largely derives from Japan's behavior before and during World War II. Japan must therefore come to grips with its past before the region can move forward. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's unusually frank show of remorse during South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's October visit to Tokyo was a good start. More is needed, and the United States must also do its part. Pressure from Washington would help Japan accept responsibility for the aging victims of its imperial army. A bit of American arm-twisting could lead to an even greater display of contrition, contributing more to regional security (and more cheaply) than do the 100,000 U.S. troops in the region. As the presence of those troops and the billions of dollars spent on them show, Washington has long recognized its security interests in Asia. By avoiding the historical dimension, however, it has conceived of those interests far too narrowly.


It is hard for Americans (not to mention the Japanese) to fathom how deep the historical fault lines run. Some assume that Asia's resentment of Japan will die with the World War II generation. In another decade, they think, with the old folks gone, the issue will disappear. Anyone who believes that should visit a certain hill in Kyoto, one few Japanese know of and few guidebooks mention. Of course, every Korean knows about it. Called the Ear Mound, it contains the ears and noses of perhaps 100,000 of their countrymen whom Japanese warriors slaughtered in the late sixteenth century. The few Japanese who have heard of it consider the Ear Mound a grisly but irrelevant relic of the past. "One cannot say that cutting off ears or noses was so atrocious by the standards of the time," argued a plaque at the site in the 1960s (eventually removed after Koreans complained). To most Koreans, however, the Ear Mound is another example of Japanese brutality -- and Japan's reluctance to face up to it.

Anger at Japan continues to simmer in its former victims in Asia, from Indochina to Indonesia. The hostility is only moderate in most Asian nations, and almost nonexistent in Taiwan, but remains dangerously intense in Korea and China. The signs are everywhere in these two countries. When foreigners learn Chinese, they are sometimes taught that the character "hen," for hatred, represents the feeling Chinese have for the Japanese. Meanwhile, South Korea, in violation of trading rules, bans the import of Japanese books, movies, and magazines. Elderly Koreans, schooled in Japanese during the occupation, often refuse to speak the language.

The resentment has provoked minor crises. When a Beijing newspaper ran an expos‚ on Chinese waitresses kneeling to serve men in Japanese restaurants -- as do all waitresses in fine Japanese restaurants -- a wave of public fury arose at the idea of Chinese prostrate before their ancient enemies. Nearby, in Tianjin, four Chinese employees of a Japanese software company refused to work on a computer game about World War II, which they denounced as a monument to Japanese aggression. The four became local heroes when the company threatened to fire them, and the Japanese eventually backed down. According to a Beijing newspaper poll, 51 percent of Chinese rank Japanese businesses as the least desirable employers. Only 4 percent cite American firms.

Why do so many Chinese and Koreans hate Japan? World War II is an obvious explanation, as is Japan's stubborn failure to show contrition for its behavior. Japan has never adequately apologized for the war. Indeed, a sizable segment of the population feels little remorse and vehemently opposes any apology. Many Japanese, especially in rural areas, firmly believe their country did nothing particularly bad during the first half of this century. Seisuke Okuno, a former cabinet minister who led 161 members of the Diet (Japan's legislature) in opposing an apology for World War II, suggests that if any country is guilty of war crimes it is the United States, for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan's purpose for invading its neighbors was, he insists, entirely noble: "These countries had been colonized and oppressed by whites. Our purpose was to free and stabilize them."

The popularity of this view was dramatically demonstrated by the success of the film Pride, Japan's biggest box-office hit of early 1998, which paints wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo as a national hero. Tojo comes off as a kind and honorable man, thrust into war by the West and then unfairly executed as a war criminal. While real questions remain about the fairness of the Allied war crimes tribunals, one cannot imagine such a movie being made about Hitler or Goebbels, or even a similar depiction of General Westmoreland and the American role in Vietnam.

Japanese diplomats insist that movies like Pride are merely a tribute to pluralism, and that their country has apologized many times for its wartime conduct. But Japan's statements of regret always end up sounding hollow and calculating, as if they come from some committee in the Foreign Ministry. Every August 15, to mark the anniversary of the end of the war, the prime minister reads a carefully worded speech expressing hansei -- a vague term meaning remorse or self-reflection. Any sense of regret, however, is undermined by the procession of cabinet ministers who march to Yasukuni Shrine, a traditional center of Japanese militarism. All sides end up dissatisfied: Chinese and Koreans complain that the prime minister is insincere and that his cabinet worships war criminals, while the Japanese fret that after 53 years they are still not allowed to mourn their war dead.

In 1995, then Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama did make a genuine effort to wrench a forthright apology from the Diet, but the result only undermined the party line on Japan's supposed contrition. Drafters of the resolution replaced the word "apology" with "hansei," and "aggressive acts" with "aggressive-like acts." Most troubling, legislators ascribed the acts in question to all countries, not just Japan. Even in this gutted form, only 230 members of the 511-seat chamber voted for the measure.

Japanese people are famously polite, apologizing at the start and end of every conversation and many times in between -- which makes the reluctance to apologize for the war even more remarkable. If the Japanese regularly apologize for being a nuisance, even when they are not, why will they not show regret for the slaughter of millions? Apart from cultural explanations, such as a Confucian reluctance to speak critically of one's elders, there is a more obvious answer: nations, even more than individuals, hate to say sorry. The United States, after all, has never formally apologized for enslaving Africans, invading Mexico and Canada, stealing Texas, colonizing the Philippines and Guam, or carpet-bombing Vietnam.

Moreover, most Japanese know very little of their country's dark past, and thus may be genuinely ignorant of what there is to repent. For decades, the Japanese government urged textbook publishers to excise any hint of the brutalities committed by the army. When one historian referred to wartime Chinese calls for the "eradication of Japanese aggression," the Ministry of Education urged that the sentence be deleted, arguing that "[i]n the interests of the education of citizens, it is not desirable to use a term with such negative implications to describe the acts of their own country. A term such as 'military advance' should be used instead of 'aggression.'" Thanks to court intervention, recent Japanese textbooks have improved somewhat. But they skimp on details, giving youngsters little sense of the horrors committed in their country's name.

Some young Japanese complain that they themselves have done nothing they need apologize for, and they have a point. But until Japan demonstrates genuine sorrow for having killed millions of people in the war, until it compensates the aging "comfort women" and other victims, it will never recover its national self-confidence or gain acceptance by China and Korea as a trustworthy neighbor.


Japan is not solely responsible for the gulf that separates it from its neighbors, and more is involved than just echoes of the war. Even young Chinese and Koreans with no first-hand memory of the Japanese occupation share in the hostility. Unrelenting anti-Japanese propaganda in Asian schoolbooks and Asian society at large helps explain this. So does simple racism -- a racism given voice in common Chinese and Korean epithets that characterize the Japanese as dwarfs, pirates, charlatans, and crooks. This racism arises from history, but can also be attributed to jealousy. Many Asian countries envy Japan's economic and past military success. For proud nations like Korea and China, which helped civilize and educate Japan in the first place, it has been galling to see the upstart outstrip its tutors.

It is therefore a mistake to blame Japan as the sole source of tension. Japan's reluctance to face the past is unreasonable, but its intransigence is exacerbated by that of its neighbors. Many Japanese suspect that China and the two Koreas exploit the past to win favors from Tokyo; in every dispute, they mention the war and Japan crumples. To make this gambit more effective, China has sought to intensify Japan's guilt by inflating the numbers of victims. It has increased its estimate of Chinese World War II dead from 10 million to 35 million; likewise, the figure for people killed in the Rape of Nanking has surged over the years from 42,000 to 300,000. One Japanese complained, "They're like gangsters, always asking for pay-offs, always demanding more. You can never get rid of them! What more do they want?"

Asia, of course, is not the only continent where the past overshadows the present. French-German rivalry plagued modern Europe for decades, making stability impossible until that relationship improved. Like France and Germany in the interwar years, China and Japan now stare suspiciously at each other across a gulf of mistrust. These two countries, nervous and powerful, will determine between them whether the Pacific region ever achieves real peace. Japan fears China, and vice versa, each acutely aware that throughout history, the gains of one have come at the expense of the other. The two compete for America's affections, jockeying for the chance to become the United States' closest partner in the region. High stakes freight every American action in Asia with intense symbolic value. Thus the recent U.S. effort to boost military cooperation with Japan sent China into a sulk. And Japan felt snubbed when President Clinton flew to Beijing but neglected to drop by Tokyo.

Asia can ill afford such a rivalry. The continent needs a leader, and Japan -- with an economy eight times the size of China's -- is the natural candidate. A secure and trusted Japan could set Asia's agenda for trade and finance, for fighting crime and pollution, and could ensure security along the sea-lanes that are the region's lifelines. But Japan's failure to address the past has left it unable to exercise leadership or play a full role in world affairs. When, in 1992, the country sent a few peacekeepers with the U.N. mission to Cambodia, the prospect of Japanese armed (albeit only with pistols) and abroad sent shivers of fear through Korea and China.

Lingering Asian fear of Japan, while irrational, remains genuine and can shape policy. According to Chinese officials, China downgraded Russia as a security threat at the end of the Cold War while upgrading Japan. Neican Xuanpian, a Chinese publication for the country's leadership, has denounced Japan as the main obstacle to peace in the Pacific and has called on China to keep it in check. China judges Japan not for what it is today but for what it once was. Last year, People's University in Beijing asked Chinese in a survey, "When someone talks about Japanese people, what person do you think of?" The most common answer was Hideki Tojo.

In 1998, this fear of Japan, though deeply felt, is wholly misplaced. The most pacifist of countries, Japan is kept so shaken and frail by its wartime legacy that it will be incapable of aggression for decades to come. Not only do its neighbors not trust Japan; Japan does not trust itself. The country is still incapable of mounting a meaningful security policy. Surveys show that only 46 percent of the public favor using force to defend Japan against invasion by another country. It may be unfair to blame all Japan for the weakness of diplomats like Yasushi Akashi, the former U.N. envoy to Yugoslavia. But his inability to countenance force as an instrument of policy is typical of many Japanese officials. And just as Akashi's distaste for violence led to disaster in the Balkans, where it resulted in the murder of thousands of civilians, so Asia and America will suffer from Japan's inability to contribute to regional security.

Japanese leadership is particularly crucial now that economic crisis has devastated the region. Early on, Japan did try to take charge, proposing to help create a $100 billion Asian Monetary Fund to constrain the financial contagion. But lingering suspicion trumped economic self-interest, and China and South Korea (along with the United States) rejected the plan. The defeat heightened Japan's timidity, and Tokyo has since made little effort to resolve the crisis.


In 1994, as is now known, the West drifted close to war with North Korea -- though few Americans realized it at the time -- and probably only the intervention of Jimmy Carter prevented armed conflict. As the United States prepared for battle, it quickly became clear that Japan could not be counted on to negotiate a solution or give military support. Tokyo was not expected to send troops or warships to fight North Korea; but Japan even refused to let its naval forces clear mines. It was unclear whether Japan would lend doctors to treat wounded GIS or send ships and planes to help rescue Americans in trouble. Legislative efforts are now under way to ensure greater cooperation in future crises. But turning Japan into a dependable ally will take more than new laws; the country must somehow bolster its self-confidence and self-respect. Atoning for the war would not only liberate Japan's neighbors; it would also free Japan itself.

Unlike Japan, Germany was forced long ago to confront its past; victim countries like France and Israel scrutinized every German statement and protested when dissatisfied. Until recently, Japan never faced such scrutiny, thanks in part to the United States. Postwar American governments worried more about building an alliance against communism than they did about relations among their Asian allies. While the United States did try some Japanese leaders for war crimes, it spared Emperor Hirohito, the man (or deity) in whose name the war was fought. The United States also shielded the leaders of Japan's infamous Unit 731 (which conducted medical experiments on Chinese prisoners) in exchange for data on biological warfare. While Germans were able to blame Hitler and his henchmen for the war, the Japanese enjoyed no equivalent luxury.

Now, with the Cold War over and Asia fracturing, the United States must play a role opposite to that of the 1950s. It should encourage Japan to confront its responsibility, apologize, and provide some redress to its former sex slaves and other victims who are still alive. So far Japan has refused to pay official compensation to the "comfort women," insisting that such issues have already been settled on a government-to-government level. That argument has some legal, but no humanitarian, basis. A forthright Japanese apology and an attempt to help its victims would allow Japan to play a more important international role. Japanese self-confidence would surge once the country felt it had properly atoned and no longer needed to hang its head. Like Germany today, Japan could then play a part on the world stage commensurate with its abilities and resources. An apology would help it overcome its taboo on all things military and do its part for regional security. And it would help Japan's neighbors learn to see the country for what it is today, not for what it once was.


An apology will not instantly wash away the residue of hatred and resentment toward Japan that has accumulated over the decades. But a genuine expression of regret would be a good first step, and a thorough attempt to educate young Japanese about the past would be a second. The American example gives reason to hope that a Japanese apology could, over time, change Asian attitudes. During World War II, most Americans held virulently racist opinions of the Japanese, much worse than the stereotypes held by Chinese or Koreans today. A 1944 poll found that 13 percent of Americans favored the extermination of all Japanese people after the war (the question was never asked about Germans), and according to another poll from late 1945, 23 percent of Americans regretted that Japan had surrendered before more atomic bombs could be dropped. Despite such hatred, American racism toward Japan has largely dissipated in the years since the war. Japan surrendered and accepted American occupation and involvement. The bond subsequently forged between these former adversaries has come to be described as the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none. If Japan could overcome American racism in 1945, it can overcome the animosities that linger in Asia in 1998.

Encouraging signs in Japan suggest that it may finally be ready to face the past. Not only has Obuchi apologized to South Korea, but public opinion polls show that most Japanese citizens feel their country should express far more contrition, even while the powerful veterans' lobby continues to frustrate that aspiration. Meanwhile, the old taboo on these subjects is beginning to dissipate. In its place has arisen a vibrant debate about the war. Arguments over the war distress many foreigners, since the most active participants seem to be right-wing apologists. The Sankei Shimbun, a daily newspaper with a nationalist bent, has led the conservative charge, breaking the taboo by denying that Japan kidnapped "comfort women" and forced them into prostitution. The Sankei and its allies argue that the women involved were prostitutes to begin with, who volunteered for the work. Similarly, rightists such as Nobukatsu Fujioka, a best-selling author and a professor at Tokyo University, dispute the claim that Japanese troops engaged in mass slaughter during the Rape of Nanking.

Much of this nationalistic writing is historically dubious, but Westerners and Asians alike are wrong to condemn the entire debate. It represents an enormously positive trend and should be encouraged. By breaking the taboo on talk about the war, Japan can build understanding and deeper remorse. Moreover, the rightists make some valid points. It may well be, for example, that the Rape of Nanking was smaller in scale than many now believe. Witnesses' estimates vary enormously, and survey and burial data are ambiguous. Some photos of the massacre have been discredited as probable frauds. Whatever the truth, the more these issues are openly discussed in Japan, the harder it will become for the Japanese to ignore responsibility for what actually took place. Further debate will underscore the point that even if Japanese troops killed just 40,000 Chinese in Nanking, instead of the several hundred thousand often reported, the seizure of the city was still among the most brutal in the history of modern warfare.

While Japan must take the initiative in grappling with the past, other countries bear responsibility as well. China and the two Koreas, in particular, should grow up and tone down their anti-Japanese propaganda. China should face its own history squarely, accepting that although the Japanese army may have killed millions of Chinese, Mao killed tens of millions of his own countrymen. Korea should acknowledge that though Japan's annexation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 was ruthless, it led to the vast expansion of roads, railroads, and modern schools, such that by 1945 Korea had half as many miles of roads as all of China. While nothing makes Koreans angrier than Japan's refusal to compensate the "comfort women," Koreans should remember that Japan established the army brothels to reduce the rape of civilians, and that it was often the Koreans themselves who, under coercion, seized teenage girls and handed them over to the occupiers. Japan's neighbors need not ignore Japan's crimes, but they should adopt a more nuanced view of history. While not forgetting the past, China and Korea should recognize that Japan has changed since the 1940s, much as France has warmly accepted modern Germany.

Relations across the Sea of Japan may already be improving. Some Chinese leaders have tried to build diplomatic bridges to Japan (although one, the late Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, was sacked for his trouble), and both President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji seem likely to follow suit. As his recent visit showed, South Korea's new president, Kim Dae Jung, has worked hard to heal the wounds and tone down the usual shrillness toward Japan. Kim has already eased South Korea's ban on the import of Japanese cars and is expected to soon do the same for the embargo on Japanese videos, magazines, and other cultural products.


Yet history still gets in the way and will continue to for decades. The danger remains, for example, that Japan will recover its nerve before it fully confronts the past. Already Japan grows more assertive in foreign relations and slowly rearms. Many young Japanese express disgust for the weakness of their government and want Japan to become a more normal military power. Should that happen before East Asia achieves better mutual understanding, the region will become a much more dangerous neighborhood.

The kind of risks posed by history are typified by the Senkaku Islands (which China calls the Diaoyu chain), a clump of five islets and three barren rocks 200 miles off the Chinese coast, northeast of Taiwan. China claims the islands, based on navigational records that show the islands to be Chinese territory as far back as the sixteenth century. Japan also claims the Senkaku chain, based on its "discovery" of the islets in 1884 -- ignoring that a 1783 Japanese map marks them as Chinese. Tokyo annexed the islands in 1895, roughly the same time that it took Taiwan from China. Japan was the first country to actually occupy the chain, and it operated a fishing cannery there in the early years of this century.

Thus far, while remaining officially neutral, the United States has leaned toward Japanese control of the Senkakus. After seizing the islands along with Okinawa at the end of World War II, the Americans used one for bombing practice. Then, in 1972, the United States handed administration of the chain over to Japan, and it has paid rent ever since to the Japanese owner of one of the islets without trying to contact the original Chinese title-holder. This American policy is ill-advised. Not only is Japan's legal claim to the islets weaker than China's, but so is Japan's desire for them. Ask any educated Chinese about the Diaoyu Islands, and one receives a lengthy lecture on the Chinese soil that must be recovered. Ask a Japanese about the Senkakus, and one gets only a shrug of indifference.

Complicating matters, Taiwan also asserts ownership of the Senkaku Islands. This is not just government policy but a popular belief; according to an opinion poll published several years ago, 69 percent of the Taiwanese think their navy should send warships to recover the islets.

China also may use military force to seize the Senkakus, for two reasons. First, China is now acutely aware of its vulnerability as an oil importer, and geological surveys have suggested the presence of substantial oil and gas reserves around the islands. Second, regaining the Diaoyus would spark nationwide celebration in China and give a major boost to the legitimacy of the country's leaders.

The Senkaku conflict is a clear case study in how Japanese timidity complicates security in the region. If only Japan had the nerve to fight, it could repel a Chinese naval attack on the islands. But Japan still bears too many scars from World War II to even consider the use of military force. Thus Chinese aggression would be met by anxious denunciations, urgent committee meetings, angry talk of economic sanctions -- and the decision not to send warships. Instead, Japan would expect the United States to expel China, creating a deadly dilemma for the Americans. The Japanese-American security treaty requires the United States to protect not only Japan but also "territories under [its] administration." That clearly denotes the Senkakus, meaning Washington is technically obligated to defend Japan's claim. While it seems implausible that the United States would go to war with China over uninhabited rocks that few Americans have heard of, U.S. inaction could mean the end of Japan's "peace constitution" and would shred American credibility in the Pacific.

Here again, greater American sensitivity and a reduction in regional hostility toward Japan would increase the chance of East Asian reconciliation. The United States should take specific steps to reduce the risks of conflict, such as urging the parties to refer the Senkaku dispute to the International Court of Justice. More broadly, the very fact that a disagreement over a few barren rocks could become so serious underscores the latent instabilities and deep fault lines in Asia. Reducing this instability will require long-term strategy, not short-term tactics. From the United States, the region needs patient, good-faith counseling more than U.S. marines, so as to resolve future conflicts and not just today's crisis. Mutual trust will help far more than American aircraft carriers. That trust will only come once Japan is made to confront its past, and Korea and China are encouraged to face the future.

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  • Nicholas D. Kristof is Tokyo Bureau Chief for the New York Times and co-author of China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power.
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