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Korean Forced Laborers Win Landmark Case Against Japan; China Cheers


Here’s a story that will spread sunshine in Beijing this morning: lawsuits by South Korean victims of Japanese forced labor practices from the World War II era are moving forward against a Japanese steelmaker. It looks as if there will be a wave of these cases, reviving extremely (and justifiably) bitter Korean memories about the horrible atrocities imperial Japan committed against Koreans during that war. This will also entrench the anger and resentment of the new nationalists in Japan, who are seeking to put the war behind them without really accepting the horror and ugliness of what Japan did.

For China, this is a huge blessing. When Asian politics revolve around what China might do in the future, countries like Japan and Korea bond together. When the subject is what Japan did in the past and its failure to really come to terms with that legacy, China stands in solidarity with Korea.

Recent Chinese diplomacy on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere seems to be taking effective advantage of the problem that Japan’s right wing nationalists have in dealing with the country’s past. Based on past performance, Japanese nationalists will walk right into the trap.

World War II ended almost seventy years ago, but Japan’s nationalists, who in many ways have a forward looking and constructive vision about the country’s future, still stumble over the problems of the past. A lot of this is about domestic politics; in Japan, sincere acceptance of the country’s past wrongdoing is associated with pacifism and opposition to any kind of nationalist feeling or agenda.

The Japanese right can’t bring itself to embrace the idea that sincerely rejecting and coming to terms with the past are ways of strengthening Japan’s position rather than undermining and weakening it. Until Japan finds a way to handle its past, its Asian position will make its neighbors suspicious, and the job of American foreign policy in the region, difficult under any circumstances, will be even tougher.

[Shinzo Abe photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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