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Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004

Removing the thorn from Japan-China ties

HONG KONG -- Last month, when Japanese and Chinese teams faced each other in the Asian Games soccer final in Beijing, Chinese fans booed so loudly that they drowned out the strains of the Japanese national anthem. And when Japan won, the spectators pelted the Japanese players' bus with soda bottles and broke the window of a car carrying a Japanese diplomat.

Soccer hooliganism is not unknown elsewhere, but the hate focused on the Japanese was so vehement that it was clear the soccer match simply provided an occasion for the venting of deeply held anti-Japanese sentiments in China.

Sino-Japanese discord ranges from a territorial dispute over a few uninhabited islands to competition for an oil pipeline from Siberia to Tokyo's military alliance with Washington. However, the most serious problem stems not from these disputes but from history.

For although almost 60 years have passed since the end of World War II, the seeds of hostility sown in the 1930s and '40s continue to poison the relationship. The Japanese invaded and occupied much of China and treated the population with much brutality. From Beijing's standpoint, the Chinese are the victims and Japan has not yet made amends.

The Japanese, however, feel that they had apologized and expressed regret on many occasions. Moreover, since China waived war reparations, Japan has no legal obligation to compensate war victims, including men forced to work as laborers and women forced into prostitution.

Moreover, the Japanese had over the years provided aid to China which, while not labeled reparations, was certainly linked in some Japanese minds to making restitution to a country that they had devastated. Over the years, Japan has granted low-interest loans to China totaling more than $27 billion.

Nonetheless, Japanese actions constantly remind Chinese of the suffering they endured from 1937 to 1945. Chief among these is the insistence by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to periodically visit Yasukuni Shrine to honor Japan's war dead, including executed Class-A war criminals.

The issue of history textbooks also pops up with amazing regularity. Only last month, the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education approved a new textbook compiled by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform which, critics say, whitewashes Japan's role in the war. The widow of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki has described the textbook as inappropriate because it "does not even refer to the issue of comfort women" -- women who were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers.

Then there are the legal cases lodged in Japanese courts by Chinese who were victimized. The Japanese government fights all these cases, insisting that it has no legal obligation to pay compensation.

Even if Japan has no legal obligation, it has a moral obligation to pay survivors of the war. Moreover, Chinese will have more reason to believe in the sincerity of Japan's expressions of remorse if they were accompanied by a willingness to compensate the handful of aging survivors.

In fact, it is in Japan's own interest to do so. As it is, the Chinese population in general is fiercely anti-Japanese. One survey, cited by the Japanese consul general in Hong Kong, Takanori Kitamura, showed that 53 percent of Chinese respondents "hate" Japanese, while only 10 percent "like" Japanese. Another survey conducted by Nihon Keizai Shimbun in 2002 asked young business leaders with which country they would most want to improve relations. In Japan, the answers were China 43.5 percent, United States 19.4 percent and ASEAN members 21.3 percent; in China, they were U.S. 31 percent, Russia 24 percent, ASEAN 23 percent and Japan only 4 percent.

These are alarming figures and Japan should take action. Historical issues are clearly poisoning the relationship. No doubt, in time, there will be no survivors of Japanese atrocities left and so no more court actions will be brought. But the existence of aged survivors actually provides Japan with a window of opportunity during which it can literally put its money where its mouth is and show that it is truly sorry and wishes to make amends. Once they are dead, the opportunity will be gone forever.

Moreover, it would help if Japan accepted the recommendation of a government-appointed committee to create a separate secular facility to honor war dead so that Japanese leaders do not have to go to Yasukuni Shrine. Such actions will not only improve Tokyo's relations with Beijing, they will also lead to closer cooperation between the two countries, thus enabling Asia to compete with the economic blocs emerging in America and in Europe.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

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