BANYAN column on DPJ moves to right historical wrongs


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Hi Blog.  Here’s The Economist’s Asia-focus “Banyan” column last week, on the DPJ’s attempt to try and redress the historical running sores that pass for diplomatic relations between Japan and the rest of Asia.

As I voted in the most recent blog poll, the DPJ keeps surprising me with their progressive plans and policies.  The proposal for a definitive joint-edited history book of the Asian region is precisely what UN Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene recommended as a salve years ago.

The Economist is right to express a certain degree of skepticism:  so many hopes for countries to act like adults, and own up to the bad parts of history (viz. former PM Abe’s call for official whitewashing in the name of promoting Japan as “beautiful” — i.e. shame about the past just gets in the way of training Japanese to love their country), have been dashed time and time again.  But as long as the DPJ can maintain the momentum of “not quite business as usual, folks”, I think we just might see decades of regional rhetorical logjam broken, and Japan discovering that international goodwill might be worth as much as good trade relations.   Arudou Debito in Sapporo



History wars

Oct 15th 2009
The Economist print edition

JAPAN’S nearest neighbours have long been less ready than has the rest of Asia to forgive and forget the country’s aggressive past: a brutal colonisation of Korea in 1905-45 and a creeping occupation of China from 1931 leading to total war. Both projects were pursued ruthlessly and entailed civilian massacres, torture and slavery in factories, mines and military brothels.

So Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s new prime minister, has pleased the neighbours by promising that rule by his Democratic Party of Japan would transform Japan’s relations with them. He made the pledge in both Seoul, where he met South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, on October 8th, and then in Beijing at a three-way summit with China’s leaders. Unlike the weasel-worded Liberal Democratic Party, which long ran the country, Mr Hatoyama’s new government, he says, “has the courage to face up to history.”

Both Mr Lee and China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, were delighted. Dealing honestly with historical matters, they affirmed, would make it much easier to tackle contemporary challenges together—notably, getting North Korea to give up its nukes, and deepening economic co-operation. Mr Lee said Mr Hatoyama had opened the way for “future-oriented relations”. The talk now is of reviving old plans for an undersea tunnel linking South Korea and Japan. Emperor Akihito may visit South Korea, a first. Both South Korea and China have applauded Japan’s proposal for a jointly compiled history textbook.

If only it were so simple. For all the bonhomie now, past hopes for “future-oriented” relations have often been frustrated. One problem is disputed territory (see map). Japan contests Dokdo, a rocky outcrop controlled by South Korea, while China claims the Senkaku, held by Japan. In addition, Japan contests Russia’s control of four northern islands seized in August 1945. Over the years Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and Russian diplomats have all berated The Economist over our maps.

Japan insists Dokdo should be called “Takeshima”. The South Koreans insist on the “East Sea” in place of the Sea of Japan. Over Dokdo/Takeshima, the websites of Japan’s and South Korea’s foreign ministries wage a virtual war, with pop-up cyber “history halls” and the like (in South Korea’s case, in nine languages). Yet both sides look merely ridiculous. Japan’s justification glides over the fact that its 1905 claim marked a first step in imperial annexation. South Korea argues that Dokdo has been “Korean” since 512, but uses the name for a country that did not exist until 1948. Competing for legitimacy with North Korea, the South also insists on the “East” rather than the “Chosun” Sea, since “Chosun”, a much more common reference in old Korean documents, is these days associated with the North. Empty specks of rock do duty as stand-ins for wider and even touchier historical issues.

Things would be better if Japan were now readier to call a slave’s spade a spade. It has apologised many times for its brutal past, but only in vague terms, expressing “remorse” for ill-defined damage. Most apologies, including the one that has since become a template, by the then prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, at the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, appear to say sorry to the Japanese people first. Mr Hatoyama does not call for the imperial family to break the so-called chrysanthemum taboo by admitting guilt on behalf of the wartime emperor, Hirohito. Nor does he suggest that the Diet (parliament) pass a law expressing national contrition instead of merely making statements. So, on this, he does not look like a mould-breaker. But then the leaders of South Korea and China may not want him to be. Being able occasionally to beat Japan for its lack of remorse is not all bad.

But Alexis Dudden of the University of Connecticut points out* that as vague apologies proliferate, the human victims of imperialism, though winnowed by old age, are ever less ready to accept them. The many wartime “comfort women”, or sex-slaves for the army, of whom South Koreans made up the biggest number, for example, want individual apologies and redress from the state. Despite abundant and harrowing testimony, Japan admits only general responsibility. The foreign ministry refers not to the women, but to “the issue known as ‘wartime comfort women’”.

When America’s Congress called on Japan in 2007 to apologise for the comfort-women system, Ichiro Ozawa of the DPJ, now the party’s secretary-general, threatened a Diet resolution damning the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His demeaning of the comfort women was grotesque but symptomatic: even today, many Japanese believe the atomic horror washed away any guilt for devastation in other parts of Asia.

Small comfort
But then the South Korean government gets more worked up about Japanese claims on a guano-flecked rock more than it does about the comfort women. After all, many of the men sending women to the front were, well, Koreans, working for the colonial authorities. Later, from 1948, the instruments and executors of Japanese repression were hitched to the new South Korean state—under American military tutelage to boot. That is all too inconvenient to highlight today.

So official versions of history tend to veer away from the truth, not towards it. You only have to look at the Chinese history on display at the extravaganzas for last year’s Beijing Olympics or this month’s National Day celebrations. The first (traumatic) 30 years of the Communist Party’s 60-year rule were airbrushed out. History, as Simon Schama, a master of the craft, says, should be the instrument of self-criticism, not self-congratulation. Not just in dictatorial China, but also in democratic South Korea and Japan, history still has far to go if it is to serve that aim.

* “Troubled Apologies: Among Japan, Korea and the United States”, Columbia University Press, 2008


9 comments on “ BANYAN column on DPJ moves to right historical wrongs

  • “..History, as Simon Schama, a master of the craft, says, should be the instrument of self-criticism, not self-congratulation…”

    Very well said.

    Funny how the constant ごめんなさい / すみません’s don’t “travel”…lost in translation, neh!!

  • hopefully this new government will wake up and pass a anti-discimination Law. this is the first thing that they should do.
    even korea has already passed one.

  • Who isn’t guilty of a bit of selective memory?
    It’s almost impossible for a human brain to see all, let alone remember all, objectively.

    However, the east Asian nationalists on both sides take it to an extreme of hypocrisy.

    All I ask for is less hypocrisy.
    If you want to live in the past, then apply your 70-years-ago standard
    to your former allies as well as your enemies.

    Chinese and Korean nationalists should be holding pro-US-UK-Autralia-NZ-Allied Forces rallies thanking them for liberation from Japan or from Communist occupation. They should be buying Western soldiers drinks in bars and greeting us with a hearty smile. 😉
    But no, Chinese and Korean nationalist nutjobs (and their governments that encourage them) spout hate at Westerners, too. Guess it all depends on the participants in whatever trade negotiations or international economic conference or elections are happening that week, then orders are handed down to the rabblerousers.

  • I hope this isn’t too off topic, but I saw a world map at my school and the color for the bottom half of Sakhalin was a different color from the rest of Russia. Are there some people (map makers?) who still think that the southern half of Sakahalin should be Japanese soil, too?

  • Behan,

    The Southern half of Sakhalin (or Karafuto, as the Japanese used to call it) did indeed once belong to Japan; they won it in the Russo-Japanese war. During the Second World War, Russia took it and the Kurile Islands. Sorry if you already know this.

    It’s the first time I’ve ever heard that particular one though. I know some nationalists still stubbornly have the Kurile (Hopporyodo) Islands marked as part of Japan, but I always perceived that the Japanese realised that Sakhalin was long lost.

    Subtle manipulations of maps have been used by governments and individuals to make a point for ages though. Like maps that depict Taiwan as a province of China, and the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands as Chinese territory; or maps that deliberately replace Israel with “Palestine”.

  • Oh, about Sakhalin, I’d say that coloring the southern half of it differently (usually a differing from both Russia and Japan) is a moderately common way of printing world maps here. I saw it a lot more in Tohoku, than in Tokyo, but it does happen quite frequently.

    Maps are very powerful visual images used not only by governments, but by anyone with the power and the opinion, to help solidify or create a national identity. The Kuril Islands’ always being included as part of Japan creates a nostalgia to them and legitimizes Japan’s claim even though they are fully administered as Russian territory. It’s identical to Israeli maps including the Syrian state of Golan and all the occupied Palestinian territories on its maps to create a feeling of ‘that’s ours’.

    Interestingly enough, I was walking behind a guy in one of those black right-wing-looking shirts and it had an embroidered map of the Japanese archipelago (including the Kurils of course) and the Korean Peninsula. Also embroidered on it were symbols of ‘Japan’ like Fuji and such and across the top in silver was one word: Japan. I almost stopped the guy to ask about it, but I couldn’t figure out a way to ask what the hell his shirt meant without it sounding confrontational.

  • “Chinese…nationalists should be holding pro-US-UK-Autralia-NZ-Allied Forces rallies thanking them for liberation…from Communist occupation”

    Well, you’re right about Korea, but I don’t recall any US/UK/Australian/NZ forces “liberating” China from Communism. You might want to re-check that.

    In all seriousness, there are quite a few Chinese, mostly elderly by now, who have a fondness for the US because they remember the American soldiers and pilots who came over at the urging of the KMT to fight the Japanese. It’s just many of the youngsters in their late teens or early twenties who are such extreme nationalists. We call them “wangluo hongweibing,” or “Internet Red Guards,” and they’re just as bad as the Uyoku (but maybe less violent).

  • Japanese claim of the South Kurils comes from Cairo Declaration, which is one of the documents that ended WW2.
    “The Three Great Allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion.”

    So, no allied nation should gain territory from ww2.
    It goes on to say;

    “It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed. The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”

    Since the South Kurils were not taken by violence or greed and since they were confirmed Japanese by both Rissian and Japanese governments in 1855, they should remain Japanese territory, when a peace treaty is concluded between Russia and Japan.

    — We aren’t going to go off on a huge tangent about the veracity of claims of disputed territories now, are we? Knocking it on the head here.

  • “– We aren’t going to go off on a huge tangent about the veracity of claims of disputed territories now, are we?”

    To be fair, this article touches on the issue, so it is germane. If people can’t agree on what the borders are and it keeps countries from signing other agreements then it is a problem.

    As to the “…not taken by violence or greed…”, I’m sure if you asked some Ainu, they might disagree.


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