Japan needs a Konrad Adenauer model

AUGUST is that time of year when Japan has to grapple with its militaristic past. On Aug 15, 1945, the country suffered an ignominious defeat to Allied forces, marking the end of World War II in the Asia-Pacific.

This year, however, Japan came under even more pressure, as Tokyo saw territorial disputes with South Korea and China over two groups of islands.

Earlier this month, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made a historic visit to the Dokdo islands - a move challenged by Japan, which calls the islands Takeshima.

On Aug 15, five Chinese activists landed on the Diaoyu islands, which the Japanese call the Senkaku.

The two incidents underscore serious differences between Japan and its two neighbours, China and South Korea.

Pragmatic solutions are possible, provided parties remain rational. Experts suggest that China and Japan work on functional development of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands, such as the joint development of gas fields.

Similarly, the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute could be brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as Tokyo has suggested. While Seoul is adamant that the ICJ route is futile, adjudication will settle the issue once and for all.

The problem, however, is that such pragmatic solutions would be encumbered by Japan's problem with history.

Recent protests in Hong Kong highlight this. According to Bloomberg News, demonstrators trampled on mannequins of Japanese soldiers dressed in World War II uniforms as the crowd chanted: "Diaoyu belongs to China. Get rid of Japanese militarism."

The reason Japan is held in such suspicion by peoples in South Korea and China is fairly straightforward - it has never really come to terms with its wartime record, nor has it silenced right-wingers bent on glossing over the country's ugly past.

In 1988, Mr Seisuke Okuno, a Cabinet Minister said that Japanese imperialism was "Asian liberation". He declared that "Caucasians" were the real aggressors in Asia. In 2008, General Toshio Tamogami, the chief of the air force, was sacked for denying that Japan was the aggressor during the war.

Granted, Japan has offered more than 40 apologies for its wartime crimes. In 1993, then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa admitted to Japan's violence against Koreans during the first half of the 20th century. He expressed his "genuine contrition" and "deepest apologies".

That said, however, some Asians think that Japan's refusal to rein in its revisionist historians and high-profile visits to the Yasukuni Shrine - which honours its fallen soldiers and war criminals - smacks of gross insincerity.

Writing in the Korea Times recently, Mr Noh Yang Keun, a resident of Seoul, argued that Tokyo's persistent claims on Dokdo "show that the apologies so far made by Japanese leaders were none other than lip service".

He echoes what late president Roh Moo Hyun said in 2005, that Japanese leaders' insistence on visiting Yasukuni and their attitude towards revisionist history nullifies "all the reflection and apologies Japan has so far made".

There is a way forward for Japan - it can take a leaf from Germany. Unlike Japan, Germany has taken massive strides to admit its wartime guilt.

Germany practised Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or "coming to terms with the past". It prosecuted Holocaust perpetrators and paid huge sums to the survivors. It has also preserved concentration camps and other sites.

Professor Jennifer Lind at Dartmouth University argues that Japan can adopt the Konrad Adenauer model. In the 1950s, the German Chancellor acknowledged the country's wartime atrocities, yet at the same time stressed its post-war achievements.

In practical terms, Japan's adoption of the Adenauer model would involve the country's leaders abstaining from visiting Yasukuni, and honouring the war dead at a new secular memorial. "Tokyo's adoption of the Adenauer model would go a long way towards repairing Japan's image in Asia," Prof Lind wrote in Foreign Affairs.

If Japan adopts the Adenauer model, the impact on Asia would be huge.

Right now, Japan is routinely criticised when it comes up with regional initiatives. In 2009, Japan proposed the East Asia Community. Detractors slammed the proposal as a refashioning of its wartime "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere".

By contrast, no one in Europe has any problems with Germany coming up with regional initiatives or taking a leadership role on the continent. In fact, Berlin has been criticised for doing too little to save the ailing euro zone.

Speaking to The Straits Times earlier this year, Mr Waldemar Dubaniowski - Poland's envoy to Singapore - said that Poles had come to terms with Germany taking a leadership role.

Such a move is historic, given that, during World War II, Nazi Germany carved up Poland and killed close to six million Poles.

Speaking in Berlin in November last year, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski hogged the headlines when he said: "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe's indispensable nation."

If Japan adopts a similar tack, it too can enjoy a leadership role in Asia. One thing is needed, though - it has to find the Japanese equivalent of the Adenauer model.