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Japan faces WWII anniversary under shadow of coronavirus

TOKYO (Reuters) – In a 4 1/2 minute radio address on August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in World War II, telling his subjects he had decided to lead the way to peace by “enduring the unbearable”.

FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bows after placing a flower on an altar during a memorial ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, while Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako look on, in Tokyo, Japan August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

Seventy-five years later, the unresolved legacy of the conflict haunts Tokyo’s ties with China and South Korea, even as the countries grapple with a COVID-19 pandemic that forces Japan to scale back its ceremony August 15 for the war dead.

In Japan, consensus on the legacy of war is elusive.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a less apologetic stance and wants to overhaul a dovish post-war constitution that conservatives see as a humiliating symbol of defeat. A majority of the public opposes the amendment to the charter, long seen as a breakwater against the repetition of past mistakes.

“The legacy of the war, the unresolved issues of historical justice and historical understanding, remain very much alive,” said Daniel Sneider, senior lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University.

“Does time heal all wounds? Soon there won’t be anyone left who lived through the war… Are the problems going away? Sneider added. “No, they don’t, because they’re so engrossed in forming identity in all these countries.”

Many Koreans, who mark August 15 as “National Liberation Day”, still resent Japan’s colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, while China holds bitter memories of the invasion and Japanese occupation from 1931 to 1945. It celebrates “Victory over Japan” day on September 1. 3, one day after the official surrender of Tokyo.

A LONG SHADOW

Partly because the COVID-19 pandemic dominates the spotlight, the debate over Japan’s war responsibility has been more muted than on the 70th anniversary, which Abe marked with a controversial statement.

At the time, Abe expressed his “deepest sorrow” over the conflict, but said future generations should not have to keep apologizing for past mistakes and offered no new apologies.

“Fear of being drawn into military conflict continues to have a strong impact on public opinion while … a defensive attitude among Japan’s conservative political leaders about Japan’s actions during the war prevents them from say and do things that might convince their neighbors that Japan is truly repentant,” said Gerry Curtis, professor emeritus of Columbia University. “It will probably take 100 years for Japan to emerge from the shadow of the Second World War.”

Disputes with Seoul over Koreans forced to work for wartime Japanese companies and “comfort women,” a euphemism for those pushed into wartime Japan’s military brothels, are still flashpoints.

A South Korean court said last week it would initiate proceedings to sell the assets of Nippon Steel Corp. 5401.T seized after the Japanese company failed to follow a 2018 order from the Seoul Supreme Court to compensate Korean wartime workers.

Tokyo says the issue was settled by a 1965 treaty normalizing ties and has threatened retaliation if the sale goes through. The row between US allies over security spilled over to trade and security last year.

“Relations will face another crisis, but not immediately,” said Chang Ho-jin, a former South Korean presidential secretary.

Tokyo considers the comfort women controversy resolved by a 2015 agreement under which Abe apologized and promised a fund to support survivors, but South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government said the agreement was flawed.

CHINA LINKS

Japan’s relations with China had improved ahead of a planned visit by President Xi Jinping, but the trip was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Some members of Japan’s ruling party want the visit canceled due to Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its efforts to assert its territorial claims in the East China Sea. The row over the disputed islets there could erupt if Beijing, as some Japanese media have reported, ends a ban on its fishing vessels entering the surrounding waters this month.

China, locked in a confrontation with the United States over human rights, trade and security, has set aside historic disputes with Japan.

Tokyo shares US concerns about China, but the economies of Asian neighbors are deeply intertwined.

“The story issues haven’t been resolved, but they’re on the back burner,” said Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Josai International University.

Since 2013, Abe has not visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where wartime leaders convicted of war criminals are honored with war dead, avoiding a potential flashpoint with Beijing.

But the risk of new quarrels persists.

“Although decades have passed, our war wounds have not completely healed,” said Huang Dahui, a Japan scholar at Renmin University of China.

Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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