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Time Has Not Healed War Wounds Japan Inflicted in Asia

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This month marks 60 years since the end of World War II in the Pacific, but Japan's neighbors say the country has yet to fully accept its role in starting the conflict and the suffering it inflicted in the nations it occupied. Japan's stance continues to cause problems in its relations with most of the rest of Asia.

The mix of spiritual and martial music from a ceremony at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo is an echo of an era when state religion was intertwined with militarism.

For Japan's Asian neighbors, Yasukuni is testament that Japan has never really atoned for its aggression in the 20th century. Many countries hold bitter memories of Japan's invasions, brutal colonialism and its slaughter of civilians and prisoners during World War II, which ended 60 years ago this month.

For the Japanese, however, the shrine is the eternal home of the souls of the entire nation's war dead. But it is controversial because that includes those convicted of war crimes.

Yasukuni chief priest Toshiaki Nambu says the shrine merely tries to console the victims of wars.

He says Yasukuni is not a haven of militarism, it is not a shrine dedicated to violence and he wants the world to properly understand this.

But every time Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits the shrine, China, South and North Korea express outrage. They say Japanese officials should not honor convicted war criminals.

There are few signs that Japanese leaders will budge on the issue of Yasukuni, or back away from other controversial actions. In fact, more and more voices are entering the mainstream debate in defense of Japan's 20th century militarism, including Professor Yasuo Ohara of Kokugakuin University.

Professor Ohara says it is not as simple as Chinese accusations of Japanese aggression. He says some Asian countries, such as Malaysia, appreciated the Japanese Imperial Army freeing them in the 1940s from Western colonialism. The professor admits Japan made mistakes, but it must be put in a more balanced perspective.

To many Asians, this attitude is unforgivable. They want Japan to follow the lead of Germany, which expressed profound remorse and educated its citizens about the horrors it inflicted and its responsibility for the deaths of millions of civilians during the war.

Japan has expressed regret repeatedly for any suffering it caused, most recently on August 2. But that falls far short of the atonement demanded by governments in Beijing, Seoul and elsewhere. Many critics also complain that Japan's schools do not teach students about its militaristic past and aggression in World War II.

Other critics say Tokyo has not tried to stop the recent deterioration in its relations with its neighbors. The approval of controversial textbooks that some people say whitewash Japan's past, sparked anti-Japanese protests this year in China and South Korea, and brought relations between Beijing and Tokyo to their lowest level in three decades.

Kasuhiro Haraguchi, a member of Parliament from the opposition Democratic Party, blames the prime minister for this. Mr. Koizumi, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party, has focused on domestic reform during his four years in office and Mr. Haraguchi says he has used Yasukuni and the textbooks in a struggle to maintain the support of the party's conservative factions.

"Koizumi administration has no diplomatic strategy and no relationship with the leadership in China or in Korea. Koizumi's power base is very weak in the LDP, so he raised nationalism for domestic political reasons."

Balbina Hwang, Northeast Asia policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, agrees Japan could take steps to improve relations with its neighbors.

"If Japan really wants to win this battle over China and both Koreas, the best way to do it is for Japan to take away their ammunition," she said. "If they do so as a society, address these issues domestically, South Korea, China, North Korea have nothing to consistently accuse [Japan]. Then they're essentially blowing hot air and the world can see that."

In recent years, both South Korea and China have seen a rise in domestic nationalism and have become assertive in international affairs. Both have begun to confront Japan over territorial disputes that had long been ignored and to challenge Tokyo in other areas.

For decades after World War II, Beijing and Seoul were relatively mute about Japanese atrocities. Some analysts say that was before Japan re-emerged as an economic power and Beijing and other regional capitals realized they had a guilt card they could play at the diplomatic table.

But many Japanese accuse Asian governments of overplaying that hand. They say those countries ignore Japan's record of peace over the past 60 years and the billions of dollars Tokyo has given in aid. Now, many in Japan want their government to abandon the passivity it has shown in international dealings since the war, including lifting a ban on deploying forces except in self-defense.

James Przystup is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington. He warns the region could be heading into a downward spiral, in which worries about nationalism in one country prompt a similar path in another.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," he said. "Nationalism in both China and Japan is on the upswing and it is focused on issues that are very sensitive issues as sovereignty issues are. These are issues of concern certainly in terms of potential for increased tensions, potential for conflict."

Many in Asia hope that the significant economic and cultural ties between Japan and the rest of Northeast Asia can overcome old animosities. But at this stage and on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Tokyo and its neighbors appear to be allowing nationalist pursuits to interfere with their shared interests.

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