Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rightfully received a firestorm of criticism after publicly stating that there was no evidence that the Japanese military, during World War II, had forcibly taken 'comfort women' to serve as sexual slaves for its soldiers. Criticism of this apparent denial of Japan's wartime past came not just from the usual suspects in Asia, but even from the staunch ally the United States, which, even before Abe's statement, had been debating a resolution in Congress calling on Japan to formally acknowledge and apologize for its behavior in regards to comfort women.
There is little question, from an historical standpoint, that Abe's denial was simply wrong. As with all events in history, there are still questions about the numbers of people who were taken as comfort women and similar details, but the evidence that the military took thousands of young women by force is overwhelming. After the outcry, Abe had to backtrack, and eventually stated that he stood by an apology that the Japanese government issued on the matter in 1993.
The comfort women issue is just one of many historical issues that have pitted Japan against other countries in Asia in the past several years. Other issues that have flared up have included disputes with South Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands, Japanese revision of school textbooks, and visits by the Prime Minister to Yasakuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead are honored, including Class A war criminals. Most of these disputes follow a predictable pattern, where Japan does something offensive, China and South Korea act with outrage, and Japan either apologizes, or doesn't, and eventually the outrage dies down until the next flare-up.
Japan has a reputation of being a country that has never seriously examined its past actions, specifically its actions during World War II. In particular, its fellow nations in East Asia see it as remorseless toward its expansionist past, and frequently accuse Japan of trampling on their feelings. There is some truth to these sentiments, though it is not as black and white as China or Korea would have the world believe. Japan certainly could engage in more serious dialog about its past, although, that is true for almost every country. It does give far too much attention to its role as the victim, with its constant reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and not nearly enough attention to its role as an aggressor. However, the dialog in Japan is also more diverse than is commonly portrayed. As in every country, there are still nationalists in Japan―people who try to whitewash history, or who espouse national/racial superiority and ignore the feelings of other nations. But many Japanese do recognize that their country committed grave wrongs in its treatment of other East Asian countries (its attack on the United States is another matter entirely), and freely admit it. Japan's constitution―with an article forever renouncing the use of warfare―is very much a reflection of the attitude of the country after the war―a determination not to make the same militaristic mistakes of its past.
In the 70 years since World War II, Japan has been a benign power in Asia, something its neighbors do not seem to recognize. It has donated billions of dollars in aid to China and North Korea, in the face of occasional threats and constant abuse from both countries. North Korea even launched a missile over Japan, and threatened to turn Tokyo into a maelstrom of fire―yet Tokyo was, for a number of years, Pyongyang's number one aid donor. For the Japanese, who have a culture centered on indirectness, actions speak louder than words. Even if it has not atoned directly through words, its actions should be apologetic enough. Furthermore, Japan has apologized repeatedly for its actions, including the aforementioned 1993 apology for comfort women, and has expressed remorse and responsibility for the suffering it inflicted upon its neighbors.
So if all that is true, why the constant spats over these issues? Really, the issues over Japan's history are tangential to larger issues involving Japan and its current status in East Asia. The overriding problem is Japan's attempt to re-emerge as a major player in international politics. Hitherto, in spite of Japan's economic success, it has not been engaged in world affairs, due to its foreign policy―dubbed the 'Yoshida Doctrine' after post-war Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru―of following the United States on all international issues. Recently, it has begun to engage the world. It has deployed its soldiers on peacekeeping missions in Iraq, East Timor, and Cambodia. It also hopes to someday get a seat on the UN Security Council. Thus, Korea and China are concerned about Japan's re-emergence as a global power and political competitor, but are especially concerned about signs that its re-emergence is being driven by a very conservative and very nationalist element.
That fear is not without good reason. The Japanese ultra right-wing has considerable pull in the government―a fact which contributes to China and Korea's fear of a rising Japan. Imagine if Germany were to have a powerful faction of neo-Nazis in its government, or if the German Chancellor issued a public statement questioning the holocaust. Japan's actions with regards to history are often akin to that situation. Every country has a fringe right-wing. But by constantly giving ambiguous signals about its position on issues like comfort women, the Japanese government is giving de facto approval to its fringe, and is displaying at least to its neighbors, that the feared philosophy that led to World War II still has significant power in Japan, and that people who espouse those philosophies still have a lot of pull.
In that light, despite all that Japan has done and accomplished in the seven decades since the war, it still gives its neighbors reasons to be afraid. It is for this reason that Japan has found little sympathy among other Asian nations. The specter of a nationalist Japan is too frightening for most countries in the region to ignore. This is a huge obstacle for Japan, and one that, as the attitudes of its neighbors reveals, it has done a poor job of overcoming. If it wants to re-enter the world as a major power, Japan has to realize that image and perception are important aspects of international politics. All the mixed signals that they send out result in just one interpretation for the rest of Asia―we still can't trust them.