Ambivalent Apology

With the Asian Pacific Economic Conference in Shanghai on Oct. 20-21 in mind, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a mid-October tour of contrition to mend strained ties between Japan and its Asian neighbors, China and South Korea. Since Koizumi’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni war shrine on Aug. 13 and his approval of a nationalist history textbook that whitewashes Japan’s wartime atrocities, Sino-Japanese and Korean-Japanese relations have been extremely bitter.

China’s leaders seemed to be placated by Koizumi’s visit to Beijing, which began with a deeply symbolic trip to the Marco Polo Bridge. The bridge, the site of a 1937 war incident, marked the place from which Japan’s wider invasion of China was launched. Hong Kong’s communist Wen Wei Po (Oct. 9) commented that Koizumi’s visit had “profound implications,” considering that he is the first person in a position of power in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to have visited the Memorial Hall. These optimistic sentiments were echoed in the Japanese press. In Tokyo’s centrist Mainichi Shimbun, an Oct. 10 editorial lauded Koizumi’s success in “removing a thorn from the Japanese-Chinese relationship.”

But the majority of South Koreans were not appeased by Koizumi’s ambivalent expressions of “heartfelt remorse.” Protestors from opposition parties and the general public in Seoul demanded more sincerity from Koizumi, including a promise never to visit the Yasukuni war shrine again and a statement pledging an end to the use of provocative textbooks. Seoul’s conservative Chosun Ilbo (Oct. 15) opined that Koizumi’s visit did “little more than prove that there exists a vast difference [between] Japan’s words and deeds.”

Adding to the diplomatic imbroglio, hawks in the Japanese government, mostly in the ruling LDP, have suggested legislation that would allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to lend logistical support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Japan is prohibited by its constitution from military action unless it is threatened directly. Naturally, Seoul and Beijing have voiced their concerns. The Mainichi Shimbun (Oct. 6) echoed the feelings of Japan’s opposition doves, who stand by the current legislation: “No matter what happens, we must not go to war.”