Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reopened old wounds in Asia with his defense of Japan’s participation in sex slavery during World War II. But this is much more than a debate over history. The past is never dead in Asia. To borrow from Faulkner: It’s not even past.
Mr. Abe’s words are likely to breed further mistrust in neighboring China and South Korea, which have long accused Tokyo of whitewashing history. Moreover, Japan needs to confront its own past as it decides the kind of nation it wants to be. After some 60 years of constitutionally mandated pacifism in which Japan’s military activity has been largely limited to “self-defense,” Tokyo is considering amending the constitution to play a more assertive security role. But making such a momentous decision requires an open discussion about why that provision is there. When the U.S. amended its constitution to abolish slavery, for example, it had to admit that it had slavery in the first place.
Mr. Abe’s position is actually a step back. In 1993, Japan offered an acknowledgment of complicity and an apology to so-called “comfort women” from various parts of Asia who were forced into brothels to be raped by Japanese soldiers. Now, in a change of course, Mr. Abe maintains that the actual kidnapping was committed not by the Japanese army but by private contractors. One leading lawmaker compared the government’s role to the outsourcing of cafeteria services to a private firm. “Where there’s demand,” he told the AP, “business crops up.”