A popular trope among people writing about Japan is that Japan will never assume a leadership role in Asia unless it deals with its "history issues". I've never been able to understand it. Literally. I don't understand what they mean by Asia, and I don't understand what they mean by "leadership". I think I know what set of issues they mean by "history issues", but I have a very different understanding of "history issues" when it comes to the effect on our international standing. Let me explain.
When a pundit first stakes his claim, he begins by assuming that Asia begins and ends with China and the Koreas, and possibly though never explicitly Taiwan. As he develops his argument, he usually feels compelled to implicate ASEAN, and rely on Singapore and the Philippines for provenance thereof. The Indian subcontinent is rarely touched upon; West Asia, including the Anatolian and Arabian Peninsulas, are to be strictly avoided.
Now the Philippines are a mainly Christian, former US colony; Singapore is heavily Chinese. It is clear that the pundit is, for the most part, talking about the Northeast Asia, with arguments bleeding out to the broader Sinic civilization plus a Southeast Asian outlier. There is probably greater awareness on the part of the pundit since the Six-Party talks began and the Shangahai Cooperation Organization took off that Russia is also part of Northeast Asia. It is, however, is usually ignored when the pundit expounds on this theme, since the term "history issues" would take on a very different and inconvenient coloring if Russia were to be included in the narrative.
More generally, consistency is usually sacrificed to convenience of the story, as he wantonly switches from one geographical dimension to another without so much as a warning.
And what does he mean by leadership? On what? If we confine the question to security issues in Northeast Asia, the most important arena is the Six-Party talks. But Japan is not the one who holds the most important cards there. China and South Korea continue to provide sustenance for North Korea.
It is at least conceivable that if Japan agreed to normalize relations with North Korea and cough up the billions of dollars of assistance as the means to "settle the past", the argument could be made that Japan and South Korea could make peace with North Korea and tell the US that there is no longer a security threat in Northeast Asia so thank you we no longer need your services. Leaving aside my suspicions that the current North Korean regime will not like that turn of events, the one thing that is standing in the way of Japan amending its ways has nothing to do with the "history issues".
I am talking, of course, about the abductees issue.
So much for the situation on the Korean Peninsula. As for Taiwan, the one other substantial, if much smaller, cloud on the horizon, our strategic ambiguity is only remotely related to "history issues", in the sense that many pro-Taiwan politicians in Japan harbor a very positive view of the pre-WW II Japanese role there, which independence-minded Taiwanese exploit to the fullest. But it is far more driven by the need to accommodate the national security relationship Japan has with the US, again only tangentially connected with "history issues". For lesser issues, such as the disagreement over the Senkaku Islands and the more pressing dispute over the conflicting claims over EEZ covering most significantly offshore gas fields, there is little reason to believe that China would be any more accommodating if Japan were to officially and unconditionally accept Beijing's line on "history issues". On both issues, each state will do what it can get away with; at most, "history issues" have a marginal effect on the rhetoric.
More important in this respect are the low-key but substantive coordination based on mutual interests that continue between the two states. Most recently, Japan and China reached agreement on the substance of a bilateral treaty for mutual assistance on criminal law enforcement. More broadly and to the point, our military vessels and defense ministers are now calling on each other and the two states are gearing up to set up hotlines and other means of cooperation. And all it has taken is Prime Minister Abe staying away from Yasukuni Shrine.
The one example often given by the pundit that is related to the leadership question is China's opposition to Japan's bid to become a member of the UN Security Council. Leaving aside for this occasion the existence of other constraints (including US opposition to the substantial expansion of the Security Council to accommodate the wishes of other nations and groups there of that believe that they too should be permanently represented), as well as my highly skeptical views on the value of the UN, it has mainly been the US that has used the Security Council for its purposes. The other permanent members are either fellow travelers or obstacles for the US. Will it be any different with Japan on board?
The pundit's arguments have little to do with the realities on the ground and very much to do with the sequence of events that Prime Minister Koizumi's Yasukuni visits touched off that nobody, not least of all Beijing, wanted, and everybody but the pundit has worked assiduously to roll back, with the singular, symbolic act of Yauskuni abstinence on the part of our current Prime Minister.
A final point. By now, you may have guessed what my personal subset of "history issues" is. It is the legacy from the more than 90 years since the arrival of the Black Ships and more specifically since 1937 (1931? 1941?) up to the end of WW II. It is the resultant fear of overseas military engagement and, to a much lesser degree, the vague sense of guilt towards our Northeast Asian Sinic neighbors that is holding us back. Politicians, given their professional interests, tend to feel strongly about this, if the left and the right are diametrically opposed to each other in drawing their policy implications from this. For the public in general, this is a matter of decidedly low-priority. Having seen the awful outcome of international intervention in the Middle East, I tend more and more to side with the - relatively speaking - non-committal masses here.