But any boost in its military capabilities will meet strong opposition, particularly from China and the Koreas, which continue to insist that Japan’s alliance with the US provides it with all the security it needs. Moreover, they argue that Japan has yet to come fully to terms with its colonial and wartime record.
Japan has indeed benefited enormously from US protection. But there can be no guarantee that the US will continue to defend Japan’s interests indefinitely, particularly in any clash with China. Questions, justified or not, about America’s ability to retain its dominant position in Asia’s security architecture in the medium to long term – together with the rise of isolationist sentiment within the US – have spurred its regional allies and partners, including stalwart friends like Australia, to hedge their strategic bets. It is only logical that Japan would share such concerns.
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Likewise, though Japan’s behavior before and during WWII was undeniably atrocious, its record since 1945 – including championing the United Nations and other multilateral institutions and providing guidance and assistance to developing countries – has been exemplary.
It strains credulity to argue, as China and North Korea have, that a normalized Japan would threaten regional stability any more than China’s massive military buildup and territorial aggression, or North Korea’s bellicosity and nuclear weapons, already do. In fact, it is far more likely that a normalized Japan would enhance regional security by playing an important role in the balance-of-power system that China is steadily advancing with its unilateral behavior.
Nonetheless, if Japan chooses to move toward military normalization, it must demonstrate more convincingly that it has come to terms with its history – or risk seeing that effort undermined unnecessarily.
Though Japan has made significant efforts to atone for its past – by issuing repeated apologies, for example, and providing development assistance – revisionism and insensitivity by some of its leaders lately have revived historical tensions with its neighbors. That should stop.
For starters, Japan’s leaders should either forswear visits to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine, or find a creative way to have the souls of the 14 Class A war criminals that it honors moved elsewhere. Likewise, instead of refuting claims about the extent of sexual slavery during the war, Japan’s government should build a monument in central Tokyo – possibly even on the Imperial Palace grounds – commemorating the “comfort women” from Korea and elsewhere who were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army. The authorities could even establish an annual conference to bring together world leaders to find ways to help protect women in conflict zones.
Finally, rather than protesting the way Japan’s WWII activities are described in US textbooks or squabbling over the number of people murdered during the Nanjing massacre, Japan should seek to help its own citizens understand and process their country’s wartime record. Other countries, particularly China, may have strong domestic political motives for their anti-Japanese propaganda, but Japan’s more sensitive treatment of its history could at least stop adding fuel to the fire.
Japan’s achievements since the end of WWII – including its enormous contribution to global peace and security – count for a lot. But, unless Japan makes more sensitive treatment of its history a cornerstone of its effort to change its military posture, the past could well become an impediment to a more secure future.
Jamie Metzl, Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council and author of Genesis Code, served on the US National Security Council and in the US State Department during the Clinton administration.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.