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The war ended over fifty years ago, so why can't we make peace with Japan?

WHAT do we think of the Japanese? Do they feel remorse for the war? Will the Emperor apologise?

Let us try a different question: what must the Japanese be thinking of us? When newspaper columnists urge the surviving POWs to turn their back on the Emperor, and whistle Colonel Bogey, and when this amiable man is described as "the son of the vilest war criminal" is it possible that the Japanese will wonder whether we are quite in our right minds?

To be anti-German is thoroughly bad form, even though the Nazi war-crimes far exceed the atrocities of the Japanese both in scale and carefully planned criminality. It seems perfectly acceptable to be instinctively hostile to Japan.

True, the exigencies of the Cold War led us to re-arm and ally ourselves with the Germans only a few years after the end of the Second World War. Yet the same is true of Japan at the time of the Korean War. The Americans needed a secure military base in Asia, and the Japanese obliged. The Americans wanted Japan to develop an export-led economy as the economic motor of Asia - and again the Japanese obliged.

The Japanese are thoroughly puzzled. The United Kingdom benefits more than any other European country from Japanese investment. There are no political conflicts between us and Japan. We have long since got over the humiliations of the fall of Singapore and Burma, and the shock - very powerful at the time - of discovering that the soldiers of a yellow race could fight as well as ours. So it all comes down to the prisoners and the apparent failure of Japan to offer a whole-hearted apology.

The former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told the Japanese a few years ago that, unlike the Germans, they had never faced up to the War. It is certainly true that in the many conversations I have had with Japanese about the past I have rarely, if ever, found that they understand our feelings about the prisoners. The old Japanese idea that to surrender is a disgrace, and that prisoners have no rights, still seems unconsciously to influence them. The Prime Minister of Japan, Ryutaro Hashimoto, recently issued the strongest apology to date. It would obviously be right for Japan now to offer full compensation.

The trouble is that the prisoners issue encourages us to be wholly self- righteous about the war. To see things from the Japanese point of view seems unimaginable. Even now some Japanese - in their cups - will frankly admit that the worst thing about the war was that they lost. Is this shocking - a proof that Helmut Schmidt was right? Or should we - and the Americans - be as willing to re-examine our own past as we insist that the Japanese should theirs?

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which destroyed feudal Japan, the Japanese were determined to avoid the fate of China which was virtually colonised by the Western powers. They set out to become a modern, industrialised nation. In common with all the European powers they assumed that this entailed acquiring overseas territory to protect their supply of raw materials. They were obsessed with the idea that with hardly any natural resources they would always be at the mercy of foreign enemies. The British helped them build their fleet. We also applauded the success of plucky little Japan in defeating Russia in the war of 1904-5. To counter Chinese influence in Korea, Britain and France encouraged the Japanese to expand there.

The Japanese came to think that they had vital interests in Manchuria, and developed the fantasy that they would turn it into a "paradise on earth". They did not do that - but they greatly improved the infrastructure, building railways, as well as bringing in millions of Korean and Japanese immigrants. Japanese "special interests" in Manchuria were officially recognised by the Americans in 1915.

We should remember how much all this reflected conventional thinking. George Orwell wrote in defence of the British Empire that without overseas territories we would become merely an impoverished island, and would all have to work very hard and live on a diet of herrings and potatoes.

The success of Japan entirely depended on free and open international trade. But after the slump of 1929, the Americans and the imperial powers erected ever higher tariff walls, which effectively excluded Japanese exports from Europe and the United States. Japan's response was to increase its trade in the Near and Far East. But quite soon Japanese exports were kept out of all the countries controlled by the western powers - i.e. the Philippines, Indo-China, Borneo, Indonesia, Malaya, Burma and India. Japanese emigration also became impossible, except to Brazil.

If you read accounts of debates in Japanese Cabinets in the years leading up to the Pacific War, you cannot doubt that the Japanese really did fear encirclement. This fear sometimes took lunatic forms. On the very eve of war, the appalling foreign minister in the Tojo government, Yosuke Matsuoka, revealed to the cabinet his theory that Germany, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union would in the end join forces to wage war on Japan. (At this meeting the navy minister turned to his colleagues and said: "The foreign minister is crazy, isn't he?")

In 1940 the Americans, as part of their support of Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese, placed an embargo on aviation fuel, which Japan could obtain from no other source. In September of that year Japanese troops entered Indo-China, as a step towards ensuring the supply of petroleum from the Dutch East Indies. In 1941 the United States announced a total embargo on oil supplies to Japan.

The war in the Far East was not the moral crusade that the Americans proclaimed it to be. It was not analogous to the struggle against Hitler's Germany. It was a conflict between different imperialisms at a time when the Western imperial powers had decided that their own world-order was sacrosanct.

The chief indictment of the Japanese leaders at the Tokyo trials of 1946 was that they conspired to dominate East Asia. Given that the Western powers then dominated almost the whole of Asia, this was an especially ludicrous accusation.

So I would guess that those Japanese who have a sense of history will be a little puzzled and resentful at our overwhelming self-righteousness. This may make them less receptive to the issue of the POWs. Let us remember the prisoners and the Rape of Nangking, but also the Allied war crimes - Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fire-bombing of Tokyo in which up to 140,000 people died.

That we remember the past so selectively, that our relations with Japan can be reduced to one emotionally charged issue and that we visit the sins of the father upon the son's blameless head - all these seem to me signs that we are turning into a rather small people.