"Japan in Asia: A Generous Friend Burdened With Historical Baggage"

May 22, 2002

Dr. Goh Nguen Wah
Associate Editor, Associate Editor, Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore

To many Asian countries, Japan is a generous friend in need, but its history of military adventurism, coupled with its recent antagonistic postures, continue to make them feel uneasy.

In some Asian capitals, successive visiting Japanese prime ministers are greeted with the highest respect in meeting rooms and state banqueting halls, but are booed and jeered by angry protestors outside.

This phenomenon reflects the mixed feelings of Asians towards Japan--an indispensable economic partner as well as a nation which not only refuses to face up to its past atrocities and brutalities in the region, but is also seen to be trying hard to gloss over its misdeeds. Many Asians hate the same Japan they love.

A generous friend in need

Collective historical memories of Japanese militarism complicate Asians' dealings with Japan. But on the whole, their relations with Japan have been positive and constructive.

This is because Japan has played an active role in the region's economic development in the post-war period. In fact, it is the biggest economic benefactor of its Asian neighbors.

Consider China: In the area of direct investment, China is heavily dependent on Japan. It is the second-largest foreign investor in China after the US.

China is also heavily dependent on Japan's official development assistance (ODA). Loans to China have totalled 2.45 trillion yen (US$62.7 billion) over 20 years from FY 1979, with grants reaching 118.5 billion yen and technical aid 116.3 billion yen.

Or consider Southeast Asia. Japan's engagement in the region's development goes back a long way. Its contributions to Southeast Asia can be felt through the omnipresence of its investments, technology, products and work culture.

Even though its economy is not growing as fast as it used to, Japan is still a very important economic partner for Southeast Asian countries.

Needless to say, Japan engages in the partnership for its own strategic geopolitical and economic reasons, and perhaps as a gesture of atonement for its past war crimes. But this generosity has nevertheless helped to lessen hostility towards Japan to a large extent.

Past militarism casts a long shadow

Asian people who suffered badly during the Japanese occupation still feel bitter about Japan. And Tokyo has aggravated an already emotional situation through certain seemingly provocative actions.

First, Japan has refused to apologise for its war crimes. Without resolving this fundamental apology issue, Japan will continue to live in its own shadow of past misdeeds.

Singapore's Senior Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, said in his memoirs "From Third World To First" that "whatever the future may hold for Japan and Asia, to play their role as an economic moderniser and UN peacekeeper, the Japanese must first put this apology issue to rest. Asia and Japan must move on. We need greater trust and confidence in each other".

Second, there is the issue of Tokyo's approval of a textbook that distorts history. Chinese and Koreans reacted strongly in 2001 when the Japanese Education Ministry approved a history textbook for junior high school that whitewashes Japan's wartime atrocities in Asia.

Third, Japanese political leaders' visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Japan's Asian neighbours feel insulted whenever Japanese prime ministers and senior government officials visit the Shrine, which honours Class A war criminals among the nations's war dead.

The visits are seen as a deliberate act of defiance against calls by Japan's Asian neighbours for it to face up to its wartime aggression.

It is quite clear that Japanese politicians place greater emphasis in winning votes in elections than winning the trust and friendship of its neighbouring countries. By ignoring their concerns and feelings, Japan is perpetuating Asian peoples' bitter memories of its military aggression.

Recent antagonistic postures cause anxiety and suspicion

Successive Japanese governments have pledged repeatedly to work closely with Asian neighbours to maintain peace and stability in the region, but, at the same time, Tokyo seems to be progressively leaning towards rewriting its war-renouncing Constitution and flexing its military muscles.

First, there is a perception of Japan being a member of an "axis of antagonists" against China. Japan's support for America's Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) system which will also cover Taiwan, coupled with US effort to fortify military ties with the pro-independence Taiwanese government to confront China, is viewed seriously by Beijing.

Second, the strengthening of US and Japanese military co-operation in patrolling the western Pacific will inevitably complicate Sino-US relations and Sino-Japanese relations.

Third, there is the issue of Japan's hostility towards North Korea. Mr. Koizumi is one of a few world leaders to have strongly supported President Bush's branding of North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran. This has severely jeopardized North Korea's national security and created more tension in East Asia.

New partnership in the 21st century

US President Bush said in the Japanese Diet during his visit in February that "I'm convinced the 21st century will be the Pacific century". In the western Pacific, China and Japan are key players.

Cooperation between them will bring stability and prosperity to all, whereas any hostile rivalry will throw the region into chaos, undermining the prospect of a "Pacific century".

True, it will not be easy for the two countries to resolve certain longstanding differences overnight, but they should cooperate to seek common ground while shelving disagreements for the sake of stability and prosperity of the whole region.

China--the world's most populous country, seventh largest economy and a potential superpower--will have a major role to play in the world in general and Asia in particular. Countries in Asia will find that lasting solutions to regional problems will not be achieved without China's active cooperation.

Furthermore, China is now considered as the most attractive destination for investments.

However, while China's economic weight may be catching up with Japan, it is not going to overtake Japan's role in Asia anytime soon because Japan remains a formidable economic powerhouse. Its economy is four times bigger than China's.

During his official visit to ASEAN in January, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi advocated the idea of a "Japan-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Partnership". He also proposed that Japan and ASEAN should strengthen their cooperation under the basic concept of "acting together---advancing together" in the 21st century.

These are positive indications of Japan's desire to strengthen broad-ranging economic relations with Southeast Asian countries.


Genuine friendship between countries goes far beyond close partnership in trade and investment. Japan will certainly continue to play a very constructive role as a valuable economic partner of Asian and Southeast Asian countries, but so long as it refuses to face up to its war crimes in Asia, so long as it is doing things that are seen to be associated with the revival of militarism, and in view of the historical territorial disputes it has had with China and South Korea, its relations with Asian neighbours will remain diplomatically correct and cordial, but unlikely to be on a "heart-to-heart" partnership platform.

Titles of speakers, names of companies, etc., were correct as of the time when the forum was held.