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Asia: 70 years after WWII, Japan gets better grades than China

Despite tensions around the anniversary of Japan's surrender, new generations in the rest of Asia see 'the Japan of today, not 70 years ago.'

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    Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh shake hands before talks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo July 30, 2015.
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As Asia remembers 70 years since the end of a Japanese-led war that killed tens of millions and ended in two nuclear blasts, vast differences are emerging in the way the region today thinks about Japan.

On the Aug. 15 anniversary, much attention was paid to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement of remorse over the war. Attention is now turning to who will attend China's memorial parade on Sept. 3.

Yet while China's Xi Jinping and South Korea's Park Geun-hye seem reluctant to forgive Japan, especially at a time of increased nationalism, the governments of other countries that experienced Japan's wartime brutality have started to cooperate more closely with Tokyo and take a less strident tone.

In part, many Asian nations' changing outlook follows growing wariness of China’s growing power and assertiveness. But Japan is also benefiting from new generations in Asia that are far removed from bitter memories of imperialistic Japan. Corporations in Japan are seen as promoting congenial joint business arrangements. There is also greater acknowledgment of Tokyo's decades of steady aid and assistance across Asia.

A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center of 11 Asian nations found significantly more favorable views of Japan than China. In fact, in five of the countries occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army – Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia – more than 75 percent of the population sees Japan in a favorable light.

In none of those countries do positive views of China reach such high marks.

Boosting ties with India

In India, meanwhile, favorable ratings break down to 31 percent for China and 43 percent for Japan. Relations between Tokyo and New Delhi are noticeably warming, driven by a perception of a deeper reciprocity.

"India and Japan are working to operationalize what was a good but dormant relationship in order to exploit its full potential," says Rajiv Kumar, at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. "India is also hedging its bets to avoid being too reliant on, or dominated by, the huge power of China."

“For both sides [India and Japan], the economics are more important than security,” adds Dr. Kumar. “There's a big investment opportunity for Japan, and there's a very large potential payoff for India in terms of modernizing its technology and infrastructure."

That formula is also a key to normalizing relations with Myanmar, which was occupied by Japan when it was British Burma.

Development aid, forgiving sovereign debt, and sharing of technology have all contributed to the relationship between Japan and Burma, according to Professor Chaw Chaw Sein, head of the international relations department at the University of Yangon.

"We suffered under Japanese occupation, but unlike Korea and China, we can forget," says Prof. Chaw Chaw, who notes that her grandparents' generation is not so forgiving. “The new generation has no anti-Japanese feelings."

China, for its part, was an ally during Myanmar's military-socialist era, but now, in many parts of Myanmar, there’s skepticism about Chinese business ventures, real estate purchases and attitudes towards mutual benefit.

"When Japanese companies invest, they bring technology with them. It's different with the Chinese – their investments only benefit China, not Myanmar," says Chaw Chaw.

Japan's generous official development assistance (ODA) spending went a long way in building bridges with the victims of its imperial aggression, according to Yasayuki Ishida of The Japan Institute of International Affairs think tank.

"Even though the Philippines and Singapore suffered greatly during the war, they appreciate Japan's efforts in helping them and other ASEAN nations to develop since," says Dr. Ishida.

To be sure, ODA has not always been a panacea for establishing better relations.

China kept in the dark

Tokyo, for example, lavished huge sums on Beijing for three decades, beginning in 1979 and ending in 2011, as China overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economy. Yet little goodwill was created among ordinary Chinese who were kept largely in the dark by China's leaders about the extent of ODA, according to Ishida.

Yoichi Shimada, professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, believes domestic politics in both China and South Korea has prevented normalization of relations with Japan.

"The Chinese Communist Party, in order to maintain authoritarian rule, must persuade its people that if they loosened their grip on power, Japanese militarism would rise again," says the professor.

"But China's economy has shown signs of weakness, so the authorities must improve relations with Japan for the sake of trade," he says.

South Korea, occupied by Japan for much of the first half of the 20th century, harbors grievances toward its former colonizers. Efforts by Japanese leaders in recent years to revise the history of that occupation, especially Japan's treatment of women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers, exacerbates public opinion in the South.

Some Asia observers take not of the different attitude taken toward Japan by, for example, the city-state of Singapore.

“Unlike China and Korea, Singapore nurtures no sense of grievance towards its former occupiers, despite the … cruelty,” John Curtis Perry, professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “The Japanese chose Chinese Singaporeans, three quarters of the population, for the worst treatment … [singling] out those who had soft hands and wore glasses – marks of the leadership class – for execution. Many thousands died.”

Chaw Chaw, the professor from Burma, says the issue moving forward is a pragmatic one: "We see the Japan of today, not of 70 years ago."

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