AP Photo
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe follows a Shinto priest to pay respect for the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Dec. 26. The shrine honors 2.5 million war dead including convicted class-A war criminals. The visit was the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006.

For Japan and China, a day of selective remembrance

On Thursday, China celebrated Mao while Japan's leader honored wartime dead. Both events riled many who want each nation to better recall past atrocities. Doing so is essential to achieving forgiveness and ensuring peace.

For a nation to make amends for past wrongs, how much contrition is enough?

That question seemed to hang over Japan and China on Thursday as each country revisited parts of its 20th-century history.

In Japan, a nationalist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. He says he went to pay respects to the country’s 2.5 million wartime dead – including some who were convicted of war crimes after World War II. Yet his visit, coming a year since he took office, infuriated many in Asia who worry Japan’s right wing ignores wartime atrocities. It also “disappointed” the United States for exacerbating tensions with Japan’s neighbors.

In China, meanwhile, the ruling Communist Party celebrated the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birthday with patriotic songs, TV docu-dramas, and even a gold statue of the late revolutionary leader. Purposely left out of this “glorious” history was any mention of Mao’s horrific mistakes: the Great Famine of 1958-61 that killed millions and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution that shattered the lives of millions. Much to the dismay of many Chinese, the party still blocks public debate of these tragedies in case it might undermine the party’s grip on power.

Coming on the same day, these two separate actions in Japan and China reveal how much the past is still very much present for Asia’s two giants – and very much in need of attention to keep peace in a region beset by territorial disputes.

Japan has officially apologized for the suffering caused by its imperialist past in Asia. And China’s Communist Party long ago admitted Mao’s “errors,” specifically the Cultural Revolution. But to many people, even within their own country, Japan and China have not done enough to make amends or absorb the lessons of history out of a sense of pride or a desire to use the past for current political purposes.

To Prime Minister Abe, Japan’s actions since World War II speak louder than words. When asked during his visit to the shrine about the culpabilities of Japanese wartime leaders, he responded: “Based on our soul-searching over the past, we have protected basic human rights and built up the democracy and freedom of Japan after the war.”

China’s party leader, Xi Jinping, made a similar point in a speech last January, claiming the country’s economic progress and political changes since Mao are reason enough not to judge the worst of Mao’s legacy. Mr. Xi warned of “great chaos” if Mao were “negated.”

Still, many of the people who suffered or took part in these past events are still alive. Their emotional wounds are in need of healing. Official apologies or past compensation are not seen as adequate.

One example is the case of the so-called “comfort women” of Korea who were used as sex slaves by Imperial Japanese soldiers. Their individual claims cry out for attention, much like some victims of Nazi Germany were given special compensation during the 1990s.

In China, many people who hurt others during the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution have only recently begun to speak out with contrition. A recent example is Chen Xiaolu, the son of a founder of communist China, Chen Yi. On a website in August, Mr. Chen admitted that he helped lead the persecution of top officials at his school, one of whom committed suicide.

“I bear direct responsibility for the denouncing and criticism, and forced-labor re-education of school leaders, and some teachers and students,” he wrote.

“My official apology comes too late, but for the purification of the soul, the progress of society and the future of the nation, one must make this kind of apology.”

The seeking and granting of forgiveness, especially on the scale of nations, can be difficult to achieve without a great deal of heart-felt contrition. Yet as postwar Germany has shown by acknowledging its Nazi past for decades, the process is essential to restoration and progress.

With tensions now high between Japan and China, the process of recognizing historical truth, relinquishing old resentments, or making amends is needed more than ever.

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