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Editorial: Japan should commit to healing wounds of WWII

Aug. 15 marks the 74th anniversary of the end of World War II, a day when people mourn those who died in the conflict, reflect on Japan's past and renew the country's determination not to wage war again.

This year, a serious disagreement with South Korea has complicated Japan's position, highlighting the difficulties involved in efforts to heal the wounds left by the conflict. It takes generations to mend relations between nations once war has come between them.

The United States and other Allied Powers that occupied Japan after the war initially took a punitive policy of demanding massive compensation from Japan in a bid to reduce its economic might to the minimum level. The Allied Powers took the measures in consideration for the feelings of countries that had been victims of Japan's wartime atrocities.

However, the outbreak of the Korean War and snowballing expenses from occupying the country forced the United States to change its policy. As Japan's strategic value grew because of Washington's engagement in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it became beneficial to the United States for Japan to be allowed to become economically independent.

Under those circumstances, the Treaty of Peace with Japan, signed in September 1951, allowed it to provide services to countries it owed compensation to, which were favorable terms because they recognized that Tokyo had no capacity to pay such a huge amount of reparations.

By 1977, Japan had completely paid a total of $1.5 billion in compensation to Asian countries, which was not a small figure.

However, the payments ultimately helped Japanese companies to expand their business activities in Asia, because the government fulfilled its obligations to these countries by covering the costs in yen of Japanese products bought by recipients of Japan's reparations.

Some younger politicians today are under the impression that Tokyo has administered sufficient compensation for war damage under severe conditions. However, they do not fully understand that the peace treaty was lenient on Japan. Politicians must improve their grasp of history.

Japan also normalized its diplomatic relations with South Korea in line with the peace treaty, which required special arrangements for areas that had been under Japan's rule that were divided after the war.

It took 14 years for the two nations to finally sign the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965 because negotiations were deadlocked over the interpretation of Japan's colonial rule of the peninsula.

Although the treaty was effectively influenced by the United States, it was of great historical significance that Tokyo and Seoul reached a compromise from a broader perspective.

However, a ruling handed down by the South Korean Supreme Court in October 2018, ordering a Japanese company to compensate former South Korean workers for wartime forced labor, has shaken the foundation of the pact.

The two countries had taken the position that the issue was settled within the framework of the treaty. However, the Moon Jae-in administration's attempt to take advantage of the independence of its judicial branch to unilaterally change its position is extremely regrettable.

Still, it is not sufficient for Japan to simply criticize the Moon government for failing to take diplomatic measures to solve the problem. South Korea and China are both distinctive countries in Japan's modern history.

There were an estimated 700,000 Korean forced laborers and around 39,000 Chinese laborers who were forcibly taken to Japan during the war.

Chinese victims filed lawsuits against Japanese companies that forced them to work under harsh conditions. They reached settlements with Kajima Corp. in 2000, with Nishimatsu Construction Co. in 2009 and with Mitsubishi Material Corp. in 2016.

The moves are in sharp contrast to those with South Korea.

There are differences in the situations between South Korea and China. Beijing abandoned demands for wartime compensation under the 1972 bilateral joint communique, while Seoul received $300 million in grant aid from Tokyo under the bilateral agreement on the settlement of problems concerning the claims. Moreover, China was part of the Allied Powers while South Korea was not at war with Japan.

Still, concerns remain that Japan and South Korea will choose to clash head-on with each other and make it extremely difficult to settle their disputes over historical issues.

Politicians played a key role in settling the dispute over the Hanaoka incident in which forced laborers from China revolted against Kajima Corp. and were subsequently suppressed.

When then House of Representatives Speaker Takako Doi was consulted over the lawsuit on the case, she notified former Deputy Prime Minister Masaharu Gotoda about it, who reportedly persuaded former Kajima Chairman Rokuro Ishikawa to settle the suit.

Special legislation to pay condolence money to former servicemen and civilian employees of the Japanese military from the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan was enacted in May 2000 because of former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka's commitment to the issue.

Of 709 Japanese Diet members today, only 28, or less than 4%, were born before or during the war. The memory of the war is fading in the political community, but these senior legislators' efforts to settle challenges that are not covered by the treaty should not be forgotten.

Former career diplomat Takakazu Kuriyama, who served as vice minister for foreign affairs, underscored the need for both those responsible for war damage and its victims to make efforts to reconcile.

"People who caused damage to others and the victims need to have courage to seek reconciliation that transcends generational barriers. Those who caused damage must have the courage to squarely face the past and make efforts to reflect on what they did. Victims must have the courage to tell between past history and the present time and make efforts to forgive and accept the other side," he said in the Gaiko (diplomacy) Forum magazine.

The damage wrought by war is too great for the countries involved to deal with in a short time period. Japan should patiently settle problems caused by World War II little by little to solidify its foundation as a peaceful country.

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