Needed: a Japanese Willy Brandt
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
The violent protests involving tens of thousands of people in several Chinese cities - sparked by the controversy over a Japanese textbook that allegedly whitewashes the treatment of China in the past - reflect a widespread and profound sense of dislike and distrust of Japan, linked to a feeling that it has never properly atoned for its sins.
Unlike the situation in Europe, where Germany is fully accepted as an important member of the European Union, in Asia there has never been real reconciliation between Japan and its former victims, especially China.
West German chancellor Willy Brandt travelled to Warsaw on December 7, 1970, and fell to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 to express sorrow and atonement. By spontaneously kneeling in public, Brandt showed that he accepted German responsibility for atrocities against the Jews. It was a profound act of contrition.
In contrast, Japan's apologies to China have been grudging. In 1972, when the two normalised relations, their communiqué said: "The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself." There was no word of apology. The death and destruction wrought on millions was simply "serious damage".
The one time when there was an apology that actually sounded contrite was in 1995, when Japan was governed by a socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama. Marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war, he said: "During a certain period in the not-too-distant past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly those of Asia.
"In the hope that no such mistake will be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humanity, these irrefutable facts of history and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology."
However, in 1992, when Emperor Akihito visited China, he did not apologise or ask for forgiveness. Instead, he expressed "regret" and "contrition" for what Japanese troops had done in China in the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, "regret" falls short of an apology and cannot convey the sense of guilt or a desire for atonement that would be much more appropriate.
And in 1998, when the two countries signed a joint declaration on friendship and co-operation, it said: "The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious distress and damage that Japan caused to the Chinese people through its aggression against China during a certain period in the past and expressed deep remorse for this.
"The Chinese side hopes that the Japanese side will learn lessons from the history and adhere to the path of peace and development. Based on this, both sides will develop long-standing relations of friendship."
To the Chinese, however, it often appears that Tokyo has not learned lessons from history. The regular appearance of Japanese school textbooks that whitewash the country's wartime behaviour suggests that there is little acceptance of the reality of history.
The fact that the Japanese government, to this day, refuses to pay compensation to Chinese, Korean and other Asian women forced into sexual slavery during the war suggests that there is little desire to redress the grievous wrongs done.
And the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continues to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war criminals, suggests a high degree of insensitivity to the feelings of people who were raped, tortured and victimised by Japan.
Today, nobody in Europe is obsessed with Germany's wartime atrocities. The same cannot be said of Japan in Asia.
(Originally appeared in the April 13, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)