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Friday, March 9, 2007

Retreat from responsibility

LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps in an ideal world, people all across Asia would simply ignore the sad Japanese leader who slides embarrassingly and inelegantly into seemingly pointless denial over the "comfort women" issue of World War II. Perhaps in another world, the sight would prompt genuine concern about the leader's mental health, rather than abject contempt for his soul.

It would arguably be better for the equanimity of all concerned if they could simply accept that, in the largely aging sector of Japanese society, there remain older Japanese whose stubbornness over wartime atrocities will follow them to the grave -- and accept that the more youthful Japanese simply and understandably refuse to accept finger-pointing from Asian leaders for something they manifestly did not do.

Remember that Japan remains, to its honor and credit, a largely pacifist and nonnuclear nation. This is not true of China, and it may not be true of the northern part of Korea -- two of Japan's traditional enemies. And it is also not true of the United States, the one country that has not only used atomic weapons but dropped them on Japan itself.

It is in this kind of context that the declared moral superiority of Korean and Chinese leaders becomes a more clouded issue. If more in Asia were to face up to their own issues of inhumanity, the entire region would become a far better place and the exercise of lecturing the old, grumpy and hopeless moral-holdouts in Japan more pointed and effective.

This observation is as true of China as of anyone, but in this regard, the world has to welcome a relevant admission in a recent statement by Wen Jiabao, China's No. 2. He openly admits that not all of his country's problems should be attributed to foreign aggression and imperialism.

"Since the founding of our new China, our socialist construction has had great achievements," he said. "However, our biggest mistake -- especially the Cultural Revolution disaster of 10 years -- lost us a great chance to develop."

Official Chinese government policies killed maybe half a million Chinese during the Cultural Revolution; official government neglect and incompetence during the Great Leap Forward, as it is called, took the lives of maybe 30 million Chinese. These self-inflicted death tolls hardly excuse an atrocity such as the brutal Rape of Nanking by the Japanese Imperial Army, but they do in fact dwarf that atrocity in sheer numbers.

Premier Wen accordingly increases his clarity and credibility on these regional issues by displaying candor about his country's own destructive past. By contrast, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe loses a lot of ground by denying that the Japanese Imperial Army forcibly drafted countless Asian women into prostitution for the enjoyment of their soldiers.

So far, neither the South Korean nor the Chinese government, while registering official complaints, has gone notably ballistic over the Japanese prime minister's Hamlet-like retreat from reality. In fact, the less they say, the worse and more isolated Abe looks; the more they say, the more Japanese people (especially younger ones) dismiss them for their political motives.

The Japanese public is the only force in Asia with the power to deal decisively with the disappointing Abe, who started so promisingly last fall in reaching out to Seoul and Beijing -- but whose stature has shrunk like an aging lemon ever since.

That opportunity will come this July when half the seats in the Upper House of Japan's legislature go to the voters. The Upper House is more notable for symbolic than real power, which rests more in the Diet's lower house. But if the governing Liberal Democratic Party loses control, the party itself may blame Abe, whose public-opinion ratings have gone limp. The unfavorable Upper House election of 1998 caused the resignation of then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

It would be unseemly for an American columnist to profess a winning or losing interest in a foreign election. Still, if the prime minister of Japan himself is in retreat from international moral responsibility, it is the job of his sovereign masters to remove him. The Japanese political system needs to offer the world a new prime minister soon.

Perhaps the next one will publicly apologize for the immensely inappropriate and insulting remarks of his predecessor. They only shame a rightly proud and otherwise awesome nation.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author of "Confessions of an American Media Man." Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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