So Why Isn't the Rest of Asia Worried about Japan?

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Asia needs no introduction to Japanese nationalism. The Imperial Rising Sun flew over many an Asian city during World War II, and colonized Asian schoolchildren sang Kimigayo, now Japan's national anthem, before their compulsory classes in Japanese--or risked beatings. For the past 50 years, Asians have maintained a wary eye in case that virulent nationalism rose again.But times are changing. Only yesterday, each new textbook bowdlerization or tepid expression of regret or remorse for wartime behavior would produce howls of outrage from Japan's neighbors. Today, when Tokyo is debating a change in its so-called Peace Constitution the reaction around Asia is astonishingly sanguine. Our government is not really sensitive toward this matter, says Lee Ho Shik, an official at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, although he cautions that Seoul has taken no official stance on Japanese nationalism. According to Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center: As in any other country, Japan's rising nationalism is normal. Blas Ople, president of the Philippine Senate, even thinks Japan should seriously consider arming itself with nuclear weapons. My own guess, he says with no evident alarm, is that it's just a matter of time. Reactions vary widely and depend on several factors. How much did a country suffer under Japan's yoke? Will Japan's ambitions, however inchoate at this stage, conflict someday with a neighbor's--or even complement them? Malaysia was overrun by imperial forces in late 1941, but contemporary Japanese assertiveness is actually cheered. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad co-wrote a 1995 book with Japanese right-winger and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara titled The Voice of Asia, in which they insisted that Asians should be free from foreign domination and stand on their own feet--a popular sentiment in Malaysia today. We believe rising nationalism in Japan is just a wake-up call for the new generation of Japanese, says a top official in Malaysia's Foreign Ministry. Notes Mahadzir Khir, associate professor of history at the University of Malaya: Why should Malaysia care about rising nationalism in Japan? Whatever the Japanese do, it suits the present mood and political consciousness of their country. Japan's postwar role as the sugar daddy of Southeast Asia has muted both concern and criticism, and Tokyo is quick to remind neighbors of its $80 billion in emergency-aid commitments during the economic crisis of the past two years. I suspect most of Southeast Asia is preoccupied with internal problems, says Lam Peng Er, professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. If Japan can contribute to recovery, that's welcome. There is no sleep lost speculating over Japanese militarism. And in Southeast Asia, Japanese muscle may be welcomed as a counterbalance to the rising might of China--which has conflicting claims in the South China Sea with several Southeast Asian nations--especially in a defense partnership with the U.S. In a historical irony, says the Philippines' Ople, Japan could emerge as a major Philippine ally in the event that U.S. forces are engaged in the defense of the Philippines. The attitude in South Korea is more complex. I think it is a shame Japan is going toward nationalism, says Yang Mi Kang, head of a group representing Korea's former comfort women, the Japanese military's wartime sex slaves, without mending their wrongdoings from the past. But Yang's attitude is giving way to something milder as bitterness toward Japan wears down among many Koreans. The younger generations couldn't care less. Only recently have Japanese films and comic books been officially allowed into Korea, and they're a hit. Japanese dress designs are the new rage in South Korean cities, along with Japanese pop music icons. Korea is getting tired of playing this apology game, says Roh Jae Won, a veteran diplomat and Japan expert. It's not productive. Reacting to signs of Japanese nationalism is a ticklish thing. By overreacting, you make it an issue. It is best to keep silent and let it sink. China is not so forgiving; it feels it has yet to receive from Japan the same depth of apology for World War II given to South Korea. Can we trust a government that stubbornly refuses even to squarely face its country's past wrongs? asked a recent editorial in the China Daily. Last week the Chinese press announced that 66 volumes of archives about Japan's notorious germ-warfare experiments in China would be made public. But when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi went to Beijing last month--to announce Japanese approval of China's bid to enter the World Trade Organization--he was treated delicately by Premier Zhu Rongji. Zhu stated that most Japanese know what Japan did during the war, although a handful still repeatedly deny and prettify its aggressive history. And on the subject of Japan's greater military role in the region, he restricted his warnings to the issue of Taiwan, saying Japan should not get involved in that fracas. That's a pretty measured warning--when dealing with a very old bogeyman. Reported by Rusdi Mustapha/Kuala Lumpur, Nelly Sindayen/Manila, Roger Dean du Mars/Seoul, Mia Turner/Beijing and Ravi Velloor/Singapore