Confronting an ugly past is often regarded as essential not only to achieving some justice for the victims but also for allowing those held historically responsible to move on. This is sometimes a prerequisite for the ‘normalization’ of relations between states whose shared histories may contain events in which one party believes they have been grievously wronged by the other. The paradigm case in which an almost permanent impasse exists in coming to terms with a difficult war past is Japan vis-à-vis its immediate neighbours in East Asia. The cycle of apologetics and denials will almost certainly continue as deep contestations over war memories continue within Japan while at the same time political leaders seek a more prominent role for their country as a ‘normal’ actor in international affairs. This paper assesses the problem of Japan’s ‘normalization’ efforts with particular reference to issues of nationalism, state identity and normative theory.