TOKYO – Northeast Asia doesn’t so much repeat history as drag it along like an anchor.
The bombs stopped falling 75 years ago, but it is entirely possible — crucial even, some argue — to view the region’s world-beating economies, its massive cultural and political reach and its bitter trade, territory and history disputes through a single prism: World War II and Japan’s aggression in the Pacific.
Even as Northeast Asia’s tangle of interlinking economic and political webs grows denser by the day, the potential for an unraveling may loom as large now as at any time since 1945.
Japan in 2020 is unrecognizable to the fascist military machine that once rolled across Asia. Its military is now legally constrained as a “self-defense force.” Its constitution demands peaceful cooperation with the world. Postwar Japan has pumped trillions of yen (tens of billions of dollars) into regional development.
So how does this peaceful, generous, stable nation still enrage so many? Why do the crimes of long-dead Japanese politicians and soldiers still loom so large in its neighbors' eyes?
For many Koreans and Chinese, there’s a dogged perception, long encouraged by their national leaders, that Japan has failed to fully address past atrocities, including the sexual enslavement of Asian women by Japanese troops, the forced labor of Asian men in Japanese factories and mines, and a host of other unresolved insults lingering from Japan’s brutal early 20th century push for regional dominance.
Many in Japan, meanwhile, are frustrated that repeated and explicit high-level apologies for wartime actions — not to mention the huge amounts of aid sent to former enemies over the years — have seen so little goodwill in return.
It's useful to put the immense scale of the war's horrors in context when examining why, 75 years later, Japan and its neighbors still can’t come to terms with what’s euphemistically referred to as their “history problems.”