Monday's accord between South Korea and Japan on the comfort women issue marks a historic step forward for Tokyo. Its admission that imperial Japan's systematic use of sex slaves during World War II was a policy, not a wartime aberration, will do much to reverse an adamant refusal to acknowledge historical facts that has marred Japan's relations with its Asian neighbours.
The number of those affected was ghastly. Up to 200,000 women and young girls, mostly from the Korean peninsula, China, the Philippines and what is now Indonesia, were forced to serve in wartime brothels in the sexual equivalent of the political slavery that Japanese imperialism imposed on conquered Asians in the guise of liberating them from colonial rule.
Attempts to whitewash that past became a real obstacle to the improvement of post-war Japan's ties with its neighbours. Unlike Germany - whose ability to own up to its Nazi past and make amends for it transformed its relations with its European neighbours - historical amnesia descended on parts of the Japanese establishment. This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "most sincere apologies and remorse" to the enslaved women lifted the political veil that had fallen on historical memory. Japan does not belittle itself by owning up to its militarist phase. Instead, it has revealed a capacity for self-appraisal that can only help redeem its role in a period of Asian history that made it the common enemy of Korea, China and South-east Asia.
The accord comes too late for most of the comfort women, who have died, but both they and the few living today have scored a symbolic victory with Japan's admission. Tokyo's 1 billion yen (S$11.7 million) contribution to a fund for compensating victims is material proof of its remorse. There are doubts over whether the South Korean public will accept the deal, but it is to the credit of Mr Abe - who has created controversy because of a seemingly hawkish approach to his country's wartime past - that he has made a substantial break with history. In the same spirit of reconciliation, Asian nations should control a tendency, which comes to the fore often, to judge today's Japan essentially by its imperial past.
In reality, Japan is a modern democracy which deserves to play a central role in the creation of a new Asian economic and strategic architecture. It has legitimate security interests, and these include the freedom of navigation in international waters. What critics see as its remilitarisation appears alarming in the light of its wartime role, but it needs to be viewed also in the context of military moves being made in North-east Asia as a whole. This is why it is in Japan's interest to put its imperial past firmly behind it, so that its actions today can be judged by the same norms that apply to countries that were once its victims.