The Straits Times says

Harbouring a desire for reconciliation

The joint visit to Pearl Harbour by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and American President Barack Obama is an act of reconciliation that extends the symbolic life of Mr Obama's visit to Hiroshima earlier this year. The American leader, accompanied by his Japanese counterpart, did not apologise for the nuclear attack that had decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, bringing World War II to a devastating but swift end. Likewise, this week, Mr Abe stopped short of apologising for the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 that had thrust America into the war. Clearly, war narratives in the two countries continue to diverge even today over the crucial issue of the causes of conflict in the Pacific theatre.

It is true that what starts wars is more important than what ends it, but seeking to come to terms with history is more important than either. Mr Abe's gesture in visiting Pearl Harbour reciprocates the outgoing American President's Hiroshima initiative in suggesting that the two countries can continue to build on the peace that has made them allies since the end of the war. Also, given the possibility of assertive economic nationalism in the United States in the next administration, Tokyo would do well to shore up its political relations with Washington as a bulwark against strategic disengagement. Historical animosities can contribute to the unravelling of political ties if economic problems gain wayward momentum.

The Pearl Harbour visit is important to Asia as well. Japan's wartime past continues to vitiate its relations with China and Korea, while its atrocities in South-east Asia, as in those two countries, are within the living memory of some in today's generation. Accusations of Japanese ambiguity in owning up to that past place it at odds with its Asian victims. Unlike the West, Asia's millions were not responsible for having provoked Japan's imperial ire. However, they paid the price for it immeasurably more than theEuropeans did as Japan went about replacing European colonialism with its own version of it under the guise of liberating Asia. Hence, many Asians view Japan's re-emergence as a military power with visceral suspicion.

Yet, as President Obama rightly noted, while people and nations cannot pick or undo their past, they can choose what lessons they might draw from it. Asian nations must be able to see Japan in a new light, not attributing ominous historical motive to every move that it makes but asking what it signifies today. If the United States and Japan can make symbolic peace at Hiroshima and Pearl Harbour, some of that reconciliation should arrive elsewhere in Asia as well. An overdue escape from the past would benefit the young in Japan, China and Korea, as it would the young in China and Vietnam who inherited the memory of the war of 1979. The future is far too important to be left to the past.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2016, with the headline 'Harbouring a desire for reconciliation'. Print Edition | Subscribe