Leading Article: Good reasons for Japan to apologise

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S apology by the outgoing Japanese government for the brutal recruitment of an estimated 200,000 foreign 'comfort women' - obliged to serve as sex slaves to its troops before and during the Second World War - marks an important step in Japan's slow acknowledgement of its past atrocities. Two years ago the government grudgingly accepted the historical fact of the comfort women's role when confronted with claims for compensation. But it claimed to be unaware how they had been recruited.

Yesterday's statement admitted for the first time that the foreign women had been rounded up by the authorities: many died in the front line, or from disease, or were killed to prevent them from giving evidence. The majority came from Korea, which had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910, but the Philippines, Taiwan and China were among other countries raided. There was a hint in yesterday's statement that the new coalition government might provide some compensation (probably, it seems, by endowing a foundation in Seoul).

No doubt the new breed of politicians that has succeeded in ousting the Liberal Democratic Party from power genuinely wants the country to come to terms with its past. The incoming government is expected to carry further the process of facing up to the facts, not least by revising the country's shamefully reticent school history books. Yet it is not unduly cynical to see political and commercial motives behind the move. Intelligent younger Japanese realise that resentment of the nation's war crimes remains strong in South-East Asia, and especially in Korea and China. That hostility is reinforced by Japan's reluctance to acknowledge the full extent of the horrors its troops committed. Such feelings are an obstacle to the expansion of Japan's commercial and political role in the region. They are also likely, unless tackled, to keep Japan from its cherished goal of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, of which China has long been a member. Over and above such realpolitik considerations, the Japanese arguably owe it to themselves to face up to what their fathers and grandfathers did half a century and more ago.

The reasons why it has taken so long are many and complex. The dropping of the only two atomic bombs to be used in war, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, enabled the Japanese - however spuriously - to portray themselves more as victims than as aggressors: unlike successive Bonn governments, Japan's have never admitted the country fought a war of aggression.

Other factors include the decision of the post-war occupation authorities not to charge Emperor Hirohito with war crimes: absolving the Emperor looked to many Japanese eyes like absolving the nation that identified with him. The Japanese equivalent of denazification was even less thorough than in Germany, thanks in part, and similarly, to the onset of the Cold War and America's political tutelage. There was even, from 1957 to 1960, an LDP prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, whose wartime ministerial duties included the supervision of forced labour.

Like so much else, the new era of apologies has been brought on by the end of the Cold War and a realisation that the country's old ways will no longer do. However mixed the motives, it represents a necessary stage in Japan's climb towards a political role more in keeping with its economic might.