IN 1997, THE YOUNG CHINESE-AMERICAN writer Iris Chang published The Rape of Nanking, a compelling account of the infamous Japanese capture of China's capital in December 1937. Timed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of an episode that has become, like Auschwitz, a defining example of a "crime against humanity," Chang's unexpectedly successful book became a political force in its own right. Not only did it sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States, it also was adopted by the Chinese diaspora around the world in its effort to revive international interest in Japan's conduct during World War II.

Japan's war crimes in China, a sometimes dormant, sometimes raging issue in Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, took center stage again during Chinese president Jiang Zemin's visit to Japan in late 1998. Jiang succeeded in extracting from his hosts a more forthcoming, though still somewhat grudging, apology for past misdeeds. In this, Jiang was attempting a certain kind of Chinese re-unification effort, for all Chinese, whether Communist or Nationalist, are as one in their anti-Japanese sentiments. Indeed, the founders of China's new Democracy party (most of whom were recently jailed) criticized Jiang for being too tepid in Tokyo.

Chang's book is not exactly the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the piece, but its role is important nonetheless. It appeared at a time when the accomplishments of Chinese at home and around the world were a source of growing pride -- while the Japanese, beset with economic and political malaise, were once again obsessively engaged with their past. Then last week, Chang's Japanese publisher announced that it has postponed indefinitely issuing the Japanese translation of her book. The company was forthright in admitting that it was succumbing to pressure and threats. Apparently, Chang herself was unwilling to accept revisions and excisions in the Japanese version of her book that would have made it more palatable to Japanese critics.

The controversy over The Rape of Nanking tells us something about Japan's difficulties in coming to terms with its Asian neighbors. But it also instructs us about Japanese-American relations since the war. It is symptomatic of Japan's inability to establish a larger political role for itself in the world, as well as of the problems we can anticipate if we wish to make Japan the center of a new pro-democratic, pro-American (anti-China?) strategic coalition in Asia.

In the past, Japan's sense of itself has changed quite abruptly, and we should remain alert to how the Japanese see their place in the scheme of things. Disaster concentrates the mind. The trauma of the country's economic crisis these past few years is, of itself, not comparable to the collapse in 1945 of Japan's great imperial projects. But the most recent reversal of fortune cries out for some explanation. How much is it the result of some inherent defect in the Japanese character or system of governance? How much the result of the machinations of anti-Japanese forces outside the country? Who at home should be blamed, and how should they answer? If Japan is still without any real friends in the world, why is that?

For many Japanese, an attempt to answer such questions still begins with the "war crimes" trials that followed World War II. A Nuremberg-type international tribunal began deliberations in Tokyo in May 1946 and issued its judgment in November 1948. All twenty-five defendants were convicted. Seven were sentenced to death, sixteen to life imprisonment, and the rest to lesser punishments. Meanwhile, in several other places in Asia, the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, France, and China conducted some 2,000 separate trials of their own in many venues, involving more than 5,000 lesser defendants and producing another 4,000 convictions -- and another 1,000 death sentences. In the aftermath of devastating defeat, the Japanese were able to lay off their miseries on a handful of leaders and their embarrassments on a somewhat larger group of supposedly rogue warriors.

In particular, by decision of the United States, the emperor on high was absolved of responsibility for any sordid thing that went on during his long reign (Hirohito had ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1926), the better to retain him as the symbol of the state. And by implication, the Japanese people as a whole were found fit for self-government and voluntary membership in the anti-Soviet coalition of democratic states. Yet Japan was, after all, an advanced country, which meant that it had intellectuals. For them, responsibility for Japan's crimes had to lie in the larger "society," the better to justify a fundamental reshaping of it. In the view of Japan's left-leaning intelligentsia, the tribunal's verdict was too narrow: It dealt only with a handful of fascists, whereas fascism as such, in the guise of an essentially one-party, hopelessly corrupt, zaibatsudominated, ersatz parliamentary system, lived on.

Yet another exculpatory view was shared by both the Right and the Left, namely that the verdict against Japan was not only "victors" justice" but also a falsification of the facts. Japan was but defending itself against white imperialists who could not abide the rise of a yellow power. In their cynical conspiracy against Japan, and in their punishment of it for mass murder, hypocritical Americans allied themselves with the likes of Joseph Stalin, who sent a judge to sit on the Tokyo tribunal. This view of the war allows Japan's old guard of the right to enjoy a rare moment of high political correctness, for the international Left and the American Left still love to criticize the United States for its use of atomic bombs. Thus, most of the world still sees the Hiroshima Maidens, not General Matsaharu Homma, as the face of the Great Pacific War.

Meanwhile, many Americans, bent on promoting war guilt at home in order to constrain American power abroad, have staged exhibitions and commemorations designed to encourage us to think that the war began with the internment of the Japanese-Americans and ended with the incineration of Nagasaki.

Yet there remains the problem of what happened in between. Even in the United States, far away from, and relatively untouched by, the conflict in Asia, there are reminders. The Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which keeps a "Watch list" of suspected Nazi criminals barred from entering the United States, began adding Japanese to the list in late 1996. There are now about thirty-five. In part a response to feminists' interest in the fate of "comfort women" -- some 200,000 Asian women of different nationalities conscripted into brothels run by Japanese field armies -- this Justice Department action also reflected exasperation over persistent Japanese stonewalling on many related matters. The Japanese Foreign Ministry called the watch list "a new experience."

In truth, episodes like these are now part of a well-established ritual. The prime minister of Japan visits the national shrine to Japan's war dead, as Prime Minister Hashimoto did two years ago, and China, South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines file official protests. The Japanese government then offers an impenetrable response. Or the emperor himself travels overseas and makes some reference to events that occurred during his father's reign. Such statements, as in China in 1992 and in Britain early in 1998, satisfy no one, and instead set off yet another round of debate both inside and outside Japan. Or Japan's cultural alliance of Left and Right senses an opportunity and reopens the larger discussion about "history."

Last May, another round of rethinking was occasioned by the release of the film Pride: A Moment in Time. It focuses on the "human side" of Hideki Tojo (1885-1948), wartime prime minister and archetypal war criminal who was hanged in 1948. The film offered the Right a critique of the fundamental unfairness of the Tokyo tribunal, and offered the Left the notion that the emperor himself should have been a defendant, the better for his soldiers to have pled loyalty to him. Japan's former enemies in Asia lodged protests.

There is, of course, self-interest in this and not a few crocodile tears. Still, Japan's unwillingness actually and profoundly to accept the great developments of the postwar world is what matters. And it matters very much to our foreign policies. Something as helpful to the United States as security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, for instance, is made infinitely more difficult by Japan's inability to confront its record in its former colony. The idea that Japan must be central to a larger Asian balance of power is made operationally impossible by the legacy of Japan's conduct in Southeast Asia. The suggestion that Japan can somehow be the core of strategic resistance to China comes up against Japan's inability to make any credible counterclaim against China's moral pretensions. The hope that Japan can serve as a model of parliamentary democracy in an Asian setting is still thwarted by Japan's persistent failure to offer itself enthusiastically as such.

Instead, the Japanese polity continues to display a uniquely obscurantist view of itself, seeming ever less cosmopolitan on closer inspection. This must concern strategists as much as moralists, for without moral standing -- of the sort Adenauer and Brandt were able to restore to Germany, thereby laying the foundations for Germany's current role in Europe -- Japan will remain strategically weak, too weak to be the kind of ally the United States needs in Asia.

Most disturbing over the long run, of course, is the anti-American subtext of Japan's evasion and obfuscation of its past. At the end of the day, Japan's "innocence" must be an affirmation of America's "guilt," for if Japan is the victim then America is the criminal. Japanese subtly instructed by their leaders that this is the real state of affairs will be open to many different suggestions about Japan's future role, no matter how politely they listen to ours.

Charles Horner is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor of politics at Washington and Lee University.

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