For Japan, the art of forgetting is first to remember

Blair's visit is not normal

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The boardroom at the Mitsubishi shipyard in Kobe is richly panelled. Across two walls are engraved the names, classes and tonnages of every ship launched there since the firm - no longer part of the giant conglomerate bearing the Mitsubishi name - got going at the turn of the century.

The list runs through the great build-up of Japanese mercantile strength in the early 20th century. And on, as Japan became a world naval power. In 1938 and 1939, during the count-down to Pearl Harbor, the launchings accelerated, with PT boats, destroyers, battleships. And on. The years 1942-45 are not blanked out; there is no gap in the record. The Second World War took place, there, unmistakably, in the expansion of shipping tonnage.

For Mitsubishi at least the past exists, and proudly. Yet the Japanese are selective in what they remember. The Rape of Nanking, the treatment of Allied prisoners of war, the abuse of Korean women, the complicity of Emperor Hirohito in decisions taken by the military junta ... the kind of things Japanese schoolchildren never read about in their government- approved textbooks, the kind of things Japanese historians do not debate for fear of right-wing boot boys.

Japan's post-war generations have never asked the question, what did you do in the war, daddy, for the simple reason that daddy has effectively denied the war ever took place. Perhaps all those Mitsubishi vessels were intended for cruising in Tokyo Bay.

This amnesia is the reason why, despite all the toasts and positive Foreign Office briefings, Tony Blair's visit to Japan is not and cannot be a normal event.

Economically the weather is fine, give or take the typhoon battering the Nikkei Index. The Prime Minister will return tomorrow with a new Toyota investment in Wales in his pocket; his arguments in Tokyo for financial sector liberalisation were applauded. Yet Blair's visit, like that of the Japanese emperor to Britain later this year, is tainted, discoloured by the Japanese refusal to remember.

The issue is not money for camp survivors. (Japan did make a compensation deal in the fifties but - we might ask - what kind of country is it that won't stump up the measly pounds 14,000 a head still being claimed by the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association?)

The issue is acknowledgement of what took place. In their obliviousness, how can the Japanese ever know themselves as a nation and so in turn become knowable, and trustworthy? The reliability of Japanese technology is neither here nor there. In our relations with Japan the economic and the cultural- historical seem to go in opposing directions. Sushi bars and Sony PlayStations do not come anywhere near lessening the disparity between the enthusiasm with which we buy Japanese cars in such numbers (whether made in Yokohama or Derbyshire) and our lack of interest, suspicion even in Japanese thought, music, and world views.

Is that the result of our ethnocentrism? Not entirely. You do not have to dabble in psychotherapeutic banalities to see that an individual who ignores massive events - crimes - in his or her past is permanently suspect. The same applies to a country: what kind of diplomatic profile can Japan ever have when its wartime record remains suppressed?

All countries have historical skeletons, Britain included. Last year the Queen was in India and great play was made, at least by Hindu nationalists, of her visit to Amritsar, site of a massacre by colonial forces in 1919. Whether the British state owes anyone anything still for events three- quarters of a century ago is debatable; but no one can accuse British society of forgetting or, worse, trying to deny the facts of imperial rule.

There is, some would argue, a litany of British sins still to expiate from prison camps in East Africa to bombing Dresden. But leaving aside the contention that - insofar as these things are measurable - the sum total of British iniquity since the abolition of the slave trade is impressively small, no one is suggesting any line of the history ledger is being deliberately suppressed by British state or society. On the contrary there are still reputations to be made in the media, as in academe, by dishing the dirt in the manner of Count Tolstoy.

The test case for remembrance is Germany where hardly a day goes by without Germans mulling yet again over events and responsibilities during the Nazi period. The real point about the fuss over Daniel Goldhagen's book on German complicity in the Holocaust was that there was a reliable body of domestic German historical scholarship against which his (extravagant) claims could be set.

That is not yet so in Japan. Putting the record straight is not something the Japanese need to do for our but for their own sake. Recent adjustments of United Nations accounts have left the Japanese carrying the heaviest financial burden. That fact, if nothing else, bolsters Japan's strong claim on a seat in the Security Council and with that global recognition of Japan's clout. But what kind of diplomatic profile can a country have which refuses to remember and so cannot begin to ask the rest of the world to forget?

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