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Japan’s long-debated military renewal is being accelerated by the country’s hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in response to China’s increasingly aggressive drive to claim the Senkaku Islands long administered by Tokyo.
But even neighbors who have benefited from generous Japanese investment that has helped fuel Asia’s meteoric economic growth are greeting Abe’s move with mixed emotion.
They welcome Japan as a major regional power that has built productive military-to-military links across Asia, but worry that Abe’s staunch nationalism denies or excuses the country’s gruesome World War II legacy, which is rekindling simmering hatred among those once occupied by Japan.
Tensions resurfaced last week after Osaka’s mayor said forced prostitution in occupied nations was a military necessity for invading Japanese forces. A leading South Korean paper responded by writing that US atomic attacks on Japan were “divine punishment” for Tokyo’s brutality.
This scuffle worries Washington, which sees Japan as a vital ally as it renews its focus on Asia.
US officials cautioned Abe to tread lightly, lest he alienate neighbors who, like Japan, are unnerved by China’s newfound aggressiveness.
Hints that Abe might retract past expressions of regret, coming amid talk of changing Japan’s constitution to allow pre-emptive strikes and plans to modernize Japan’s air, land, sea, space and missile systems, could make some Asia-Pacific neighbors fear Japan as much as China.
Yet Japan’s buildup would be tolerated and even embraced if Japan should simply take a cue from Germany and apologize, unequivocally, for its well-documented wartime atrocities, and then live up to the reputation it’s crafted in the wake of World War II as a powerful and positive economic force in the region and around the world.
By maintaining Japan did nothing wrong during the war and was the victim, rather than the aggressor, Tokyo alienates its friends, plays into Beijing’s hands, stirs up anti-Japan sentiment, and clears the way for China to claim itself as the victim of past oppressors and recruit allies in a broader contest for strategic regional influence.