Japan Bristles at U.S. WWII Criticism

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Nothing can rattle the cool, calm demeanor of Shoichi Nakagawa as quickly as mention of Japan's World War II abuses committed against "comfort women" —those citizens of captive Asian nations forced into prostitution by the Japanese military. The conservative No. 3 man in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) can't hide his annoyance at the resolution, currently nearing a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, calling on Japan's Prime Minister to fully apologize for its role in abusing the "comfort women."

"This is a big headache for us," says Nakagawa, as he lights up a cigarette in his roomy Tokyo office. An avowed nationalist who doubts that the Japanese military actually forced women into prostitution, Nakagawa expresses irritation at the very idea of the U.S. lecturing Japan on wartime atrocities. "I want to ask Americans whether they were fair during the war. That's why I say, let's drop it."

Nakagawa is hardly a lone dissenter. Japan's Ambassador to the U.S. Ryozo Kato called the bill "harmful to Japan-U.S. relations," while Foreign Minister Taro Aso said it was "regrettable." Tokyo is also actively lobbying in Washington against the resolution, which is, nonetheless, expected to be adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 26.

Despite the hand-wringing in Tokyo, the U.S.-Japan relationship will easily survive. If anything, it has become stronger than ever amid the unease on both sides over a rising China, and that's unlikely to change as a result of a symbolic vote in Congress. "On a scale of 1 to 10, this is maybe a 1 or a 2," says Robert Dujarric, who heads the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "Life will go on."

The greater risk is to Japan's ever-strained relations with its Asian neighbors, which still burn with resentment over the wartime suffering inflicted on them by the Imperial Japanese Army. Their anger tends to be ignored by Tokyo, which seems to want to discuss the "comfort women" issue only with Washington. In fact, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently uttered the closest thing he's said to an apology on the issue, it was addressed to President George W. Bush at an April summit in Washington, rather than directly to the victims. Tokyo's obsession with Washington's opinion is generally only equalled by its obliviousness towards Japan's reputation in the rest of Asia. But with neighbors such as China and South Korea flexing their growing muscles, however, that attitude may become unsustainable.

As Japan's comparative influence begins to wane, its future will increasingly be tied to Asia's — both economically, as a consumer market for Japanese exports, politically, and even demographically, as a depopulating Japan is forced to contemplate large-scale immigration to sustain its economy.

It was hoped, when Abe took office, that the Prime Minister grasped the changing Asian reality. He supports the Cool Japan marketing concept that seeks to promote Japanese pop culture like anime and manga abroad —harder to do if your neighbors dislike you — and has said that he aims to make Japan a country where foreigners would want to settle. Abe made a show of immediately traveling to Beijing and Seoul, and recently hosted the Chinese Premier in Tokyo. Those summits have been the high point of his administration, but too often that goodwill has been wasted by chauvinistic outbursts from the Prime Minister and his nationalistic allies, who feel that the last thing that Japan needs to do is apologize again for the war.

Earlier this month a group of nearly 50 Japanese lawmakers from both major political parties took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post asserting that there was no historical evidence to back up the "comfort women" allegations. Last week, an even larger group of legislators announced that they had determined that the death toll of the Nanjing Massacre — where Japanese soldiers slaughtered Chinese civilians over a three-week period — was just 20,000, one-tenth of the figure widely accepted among historians. Even without wading into the morass of what constitutes "historical evidence," such endeavors are plainly terrible for Japan's image abroad. "It really just makes the whole country look really bad," says Dujarric. "It's what you'd call an 'own goal' in soccer — and they seem totally oblivious to this."

Japanese nationalists have a point when they argue that nations like China go too far in scapegoating Japan, while conveniently forgetting the billions of dollars in economic aid Tokyo has disbursed across the region over the past decades. But that argument would be stronger if the Tokyo's own attitude towards Japan's wartime actions in Asia didn't seem so insincere.

Shoichi Nakagawa is correct when he says, of the ongoing disputes over historical controversies such the "comfort women," that "America has got nothing to do with this." But six decades later, the onus remains on Tokyo to apologize to Asia. If nothing else, it's just good PR.

—With reporting by Michiko Toyama/Tokyo