Photo/IllutrationParticipants climb the steps to enter the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on Aug. 15 to attend the annual government-sponsored memorial event to mark the end of World War II. (Kazuyoshi Sako)

As always on this day, Japan is marking the anniversary of its defeat in World War II. This Aug. 15 is the 73rd anniversary.

But even after all these years, Japan has yet to attain a full reconciliation with its Asian neighbors. Complex feelings still rankle deep and wide among both Japanese and Chinese citizens, even though such sentiments have become less evident on the surface as bilateral relations at governmental level improved.

So long as Japan maintains an attitude of awaiting the erosion of the "negative heritage" of its history of invasion and colonization of its Asian neighbors, it will be impossible to build future-oriented relations with them.

Japan needs to rethink the role it ought to play in the Asia-Pacific region and make a more active contribution if it hopes to move toward reconciliation.

The Japanese government, as well as every Japanese citizen, must reaffirm their commitment to peace in their own way.

PREMONITION OF CRISIS

Novelist Yoshie Hotta (1918-1998), who was in Shanghai when Japan lost the war, wrote in 1959 about the future of Japan-China relations: "I am having a premonition of crisis."

Noting "structural inner differences between the Japanese and the Chinese" over their perceptions of history, Hotta feared that these could "cause some unimaginable crisis" in the relationship. He also pointed out, "There is blood on our respective palms when we shake hands."

Japan and China normalized their diplomatic relations 13 years later, in 1972. It was the Cold War era threat, posed by the Soviet Union, that brought them together. The Chinese government prioritized its diplomatic interests over its victim mentality stemming from the war, and the Japanese government got away without having to address war indemnity issues to China.

This was a coup for the political leaders of both countries, but it was at the price of ignoring the feelings of the Chinese people at large.

But things changed in the post-Cold War 1990s. Owing partly to the "patriotic" political education championed by the Chinese Communist Party, strong anti-Japan sentiment flared in China and has been smoldering ever since.

Could this perhaps have been the "crisis" Hotta foresaw?

A MORE CONSTRUCTIVE ROLE

The leaders of the United States and North Korea held a landmark summit meeting in June. A review of historical events that led to the Korean War immediately makes us see that Japan's wartime colonialism formed the background of the division of the Korean Peninsula. Both North and South Koreans feel embittered by the fact that they, not the Japanese, had to suffer for the split brought about by the United States and the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, however, postwar Japan has made many contributions toward Asia's peace and development and earned the trust and respect of nations in the region. Many Japanese were involved in the Cambodian peace process, for instance, and the Japanese government has actively pursued untied technological aid programs in developing nations.

Maintaining long-term involvement in the development of nations that Japan victimized during the war should help advance the reconciliation process.

The Asian order is in flux now. There are increased instances of the two superpowers--the United States and China--locking horns in rivalry. And with India also emerging as a major player, Asia has entered into an era of great transition marked by competition and polarization.

There must be a way for Japan to play an even more constructive role in Asia by accurately reading the current.

For instance, Japan could promote further regional economic cooperation through free trade with China and South Korea. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is already in place, even though the United States has pulled out. It should be possible for Japan to strive even harder to establish more multinational frameworks based on international rules.

And we would urge the Japanese government to explore meaningful participation in China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, which could become either a historic program contributing to the global economy, or a tool for China's global domination. Japan ought to persuade China to realize that its interest as well as that of the world will be best served only if Asia as a whole prospers.

Deeper collaboration with India, Oceania and Southeast Asia is also essential. In the eyes of some Asian nations, Japan is unmistakably an unbeatable economic superpower, but unlike China, is a free country. Japan and China must share a common ideal for the development of Asia, rather than compete with one another.

PERSONAL EMPATHY

Projects involving government-level cooperation can have a lasting impact on advancing reconciliation, but ultimately this will be achieved by the personal interactions of individual citizens.

Instead of swallowing the government line and stereotypical pronouncements about international gaps in the perception of history, people must form their own opinions freely and be able to discuss them among themselves. And for that, a more mature form of democracy is necessary.

U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima in 2016 made us aware of the complexity of relations between citizens of the victim nation and those of the aggressor nation.

The reactions of Hiroshima citizens to the Obama visit were sharply divided. Some felt tremendously comforted by his gesture, while others saw it as a political stunt devoid of any explicit expression of apology. Still, there was no question that the visit had a huge impact on how the issue is viewed.

Shigeaki Mori, an 81-year-old Hiroshima hibakusha who exchanged a hug with Obama, noted, "The important thing is what you think as a human being."

Asia visitors to Japan number roughly 24 million a year. There is a steady broadening of history and culture exchange programs for students and researchers. In this age of social networking and sharing views with people around the world, we hope for increased chances for "ordinary" people to talk about peace.

Nobody can whitewash their ugly past. But it is possible to change the future.

We hope to build a Japan where our shared goal with citizens around the world is to value peace, prosperity and human rights and create new memories for the future of Asia.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 15