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Japan's leader wants to lay out a vision of his country's future, and that requires him to account for the past. Shinzo Abe is in the U.S. this week preparing an address to Congress. He wants a more powerful Japanese military, which makes people inside and outside Japan nervous. Here's NPR's Elise Hu.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Political protests in Japan are remarkably polite affairs. At this weekend march, you'll find a band with guys on ukulele and tambourine and college students in matching school girl skirts leading chants.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST CHANT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Japanese).
HU: But the topics of these demonstrations, like Japan's military posture and the long shadows of war, are serious stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST CHANT)
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Speaking Japanese).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Speaking Japanese).
HU: Marchers chant - knock it off, go away, Shinzo Abe. They're processing Abe's move to bolster Japan's military role in the region, an issue getting finalized with President Obama. Strengthening Japanese defense has been especially touchy domestically ever since the end of World War II. And what happened during World War II is an even touchier issue with Japan's neighbors.
JOHN DELURY: Japan's relationships are quite bad in Northeast Asia. It's mostly history issues.
HU: John Delury is a professor of international studies at South Korea's Yonsei University.
DELURY: Abe's visit to the United States is going to be read very differently in China and Korea and watched very differently than it will be sort of experienced in the United States.
HU: Japan's neighbors want to hear more forthright apologies for its wartime aggression, occupations of China and Korea and the enslavement of comfort women. Sixty percent of Americans in a recent Pew survey said they've heard nothing about comfort women, but it's an issue impossible to ignore in East Asia. The term refers to the estimated 200,000 mostly teenage girls forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers during the war.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE TV SHOW)
PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Speaking Japanese).
HU: Shinzo Abe, speaking last week on Japanese TV, says he's not retracting earlier statements of remorse. On comfort women, Abe said at Harvard Monday, quote, "my heart aches when I think about the people who were victimized by human trafficking," end quote. But he stopped short of saying who was responsible.
KOICHI NAKANO: He's very skillful, I guess you could say, in terms of trying to sort of evade the responsibility of the Japanese state.
HU: Koichi Nakano is a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University. He says Abe is under pressure to issue apologies partly because this year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender. On previous anniversaries, Japanese leaders have expressed contrition for the war.
NAKANO: I guess we'll have to see whether they can paper over some of the anxieties in relation to the history issues and tensions in East Asia.
HU: South Korea's leader, Park Geun-hye, is so unsatisfied with Abe's non-apology apologies that she's refused to meet with him one- on-one.
DELURY: Which is frankly shocking...
HU: John Delury.
DELURY: ...Because it's Park's father and Prime Minister Abe's grandfather who, 50 years ago, spearheaded the normalization of Japan and South Korea.
HU: Back out on Tokyo streets, Japanese protestor Chizuru Muto says Japan should keep saying sorry, as she would want if the situations were reversed.
CHIZURU MUTO: (Through interpreter) So Japan should make apology until the other countries finally satisfied.
HU: Since you're unlikely to hear that sentiment from Prime Minister Abe, tensions run hot in a region where the stakes are high. China continues its global rise. North Korea remains unstable. And for two neighboring Asian democracies, Japan and South Korea, efforts to forge a way to the future are still haunted by the past. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo.
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