The House of Representatives is considering a resolution to urge Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the Imperial Army's forced organization of brothels during the war, staffed by so-called comfort women. It is an overdue but encouraging step, and Congress should pass it.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's drawing of distinctions about the degree of coercion used to bring Korean, Chinese, and even Japanese women to these brothels is an unfortunate response to the proposed resolution. There are certainly areas of ambiguity in the historical record about this and other Japanese war crimes. But the direct involvement of the Japanese authorities, including the military, in the forcible recruitment of comfort women has been well documented, including by Japanese scholars.
Furthermore, the issue is not the degree of criminality but rather the willingness to take clear moral responsibility for a past that continues to cloud the present. Faced with the international criticism of his remarks, Mr. Abe became more "apologetic" recently, but he still has not clearly confronted the issue. It is vital that the Japanese take seriously the pain that still burdens Chinese, Koreans, and other victims of past Japanese aggression.
The reckoning with the past, however, is not simply a matter of passing judgment on Japan's misdeeds. The United States, too, bears responsibility for the failure to fully account for and confront Japanese war crimes. The US is not an outsider to the problems of history arising out of the wars in Asia, and America must confront its role in mishandling Japanese war-crime issues after 1945.
First, the US played a crucial role, whether intended or not, in shaping the process of historical reconciliation (or lack thereof) after the war. Unlike the Nuremberg trials, the Tokyo war-crimes tribunal focused on the actions that most directly affected the Western allies – the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war.
The proceedings paid only cursory attention to crimes committed against Asians, such as Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the use of forced Korean labor in Japanese mines and factories. The US largely failed to appreciate the massive suffering of Chinese and Koreans at the hands of Japanese invaders and victims' need to dry up the deep well of anger left behind.
Second, and perhaps most significant, was the US decision to preserve the Showa Emperor in the belief that this would facilitate the occupation and reconstruction of Japan. There is still no consensus about the extent of the emperor's responsibility for Japanese militarism and war crimes, although the Japanese people fought in his name. The failure to confront this issue meant, as a recent report by the International Crisis Group put it, "the absolution of the emperor left the country without anyone to blame."
Third, as Japan's importance as a bulwark against communism in the region increased, the US sought to quickly put issues of its historical responsibility aside. The San Francisco treaty of 1951 formally ended the war, settling Japan's obligations to pay reparations for its wartime acts. But China and Korea were not signatories to the treaty, and Japan's responsibility toward those nations was never settled.
The US pushed South Korea to normalize relations with Japan to solidify its cold-war security alliance system. That finally took place in 1965, but historical issues such as disputed territories and Japan's colonial rule were largely swept under the rug.
These unresolved questions now fuel the fires of nationalism in northeast Asia. Anti-Japanese sentiments seem undiminished in China and Korea, particularly among the younger generation. The Japanese suffer from "apology fatigue," questioning why they must continue to repent for events that took place six or seven decades ago.
It is now time for Americans to take issues of historical injustice in northeast Asia seriously. The US has a clear interest in ensuring that the peace and prosperity of a region so vital to its future is not undermined by the past. So it is appropriate that Congress is taking a role in trying to heal the wounds of history. But simply demanding Japan's apology will not be enough. America must also confront its own responsibility in ignoring Asians' suffering. By fully acknowledging what war-crimes victims went through, the US can help bring Japan and its neighbors closer together.
• Gi-Wook Shin is director of Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a professor of sociology. He has written extensively on issues of war responsibility and reconciliation in Asia.