China and Japan may not have fought militarily since the 1940s, but they've never stopped battling over the past. In the latest scuffle, protests directed at Japan's revisionist textbooks are roiling Beijing and other Chinese cities. China's ally, North Korea, has chimed in to declare that the textbooks betray "philistinism peculiar to Japan, a vulgar and shameless political dwarf."
Leave it to Japan to put China and North Korea on the right side of history. The problem is not that Japan has refused to issue apologies. It's that they're always accompanied or followed by evasions and half-truths, most notably about the Japanese army's rape of Nanking in 1937 and 1938. Now Japan is backsliding by issuing new junior high textbooks that drop references to Chinese and Korean "comfort women," whom Japanese soldiers forced into prostitution. What's more, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continues to visit the Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead, including some convicted as war criminals -- a festering sore to most of East Asia.
For all China's indignation, nothing would upset its communist leaders more than genuine Japanese contrition. They know that Japan is not about to revert to imperialism; rather, they have used the past as a cudgel to browbeat Japan, take the moral high ground and whip up nationalism. But it's not as though China's leaders have unstained hands: The Communist Party is guilty of starving and slaughtering tens of millions during the Mao era, and the country continues to occupy Tibet. North Korea's conduct requires no comment.
What concerns China most as it seeks to establish dominance in East Asia is keeping Japan down. It doesn't want Japan joining the U.N. Security Council, or claiming gas fields that China wants to develop.
Unfortunately, Japan is playing into the hands of its political adversaries. Germany openly confronted its past and is trusted by its neighbors. Japan lives in a more contentious neighborhood than Germany, and it does itself no favors by sanitizing its wartime atrocities.
As long as Japan's past is held hostage by a small clique of right-wing militarists who pathetically claim that the country had an honorable record during World War II, it will remain under suspicion and provide a welcome nationalist diversion for communist leaders in China and North Korea.