History that still hurts
China and South Korea have excoriated Japan over its approval of new school books which they say whitewash the atrocities committed during Japanese occupation, and anti-Japanese protests have been held in Chinese cities. The lingering bitterness over Japan’s past imperialism still threatens to mar relations between the big East Asian powers
JAPAN’S prime ministers and its emperor have apologised to China for the brutal conduct of the occupying Japanese army in the 1930s-1940s on 17 occasions since the two countries restored diplomatic relations in 1972. Seven years ago, Japan also made a written apology for its harsh colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, in 1910-45. But its expressions of regret have never been seen as quite sufficient, especially by China. So, though relations between the East Asian powers have improved greatly since the end of the second world war, Japan’s big neighbours remain acutely sensitive to any words or deeds on its part that suggest a lack of genuine contrition.
The latest such act of perceived impenitence is the Japanese government’s approval of a set of school books written by nationalist historians, which reportedly omit or gloss over such wartime atrocities as the rape of thousands of “comfort women”, captured and used as sex slaves by the Japanese military. Furthermore, to South Korea’s fury, one of the books asserts Japan’s claim to a group of rocky islets that Korea possesses and calls Dokdo, which the Japanese call Takeshima. On Thursday April 7th, South Korea’s foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, had what officials called a “very frank discussion” (ie, a blazing row) with his Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, over the issue, telling him that the books had “greatly enraged” his countrymen.
In China, where the fury over the books is even greater, the country’s largest retailers’ association is urging its members to boycott Japanese goods. As in Seoul, the foreign ministry in Beijing has summoned the Japanese ambassador to express official anger. Last week, demonstrators attacked Japanese-owned stores in Chinese cities, prompting Japan to ask the Beijing government to help it ensure that Japanese investments in China, and Japanese citizens there, were safe.
The protests swelled at the weekend, with crowds gathering in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. In the biggest demonstration against foreigners since NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, a crowd of around 10,000 threw bottles and stones at the Japanese embassy and the ambassador's residence, according to Reuters news agency. On Tuesday, the war of words between the two countries also escalated, with Japan's trade minister calling China “a scary country” and China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, urging Japan to “face up to history squarely”.
China’s own school books are harshly critical of Japan’s conduct in the 20th century’s wars, so even Chinese far too young to remember them harbour strongly anti-Japanese feelings. Last August, after Japan’s victory over China in a soccer match in Beijing, Japanese flags were burnt and a Japanese diplomatic car was vandalised.
Rows over the wording of Japanese history books have been flaring up for a quarter of a century, most recently in 2001 when a previous version of the books at the centre of the current controversy was submitted for approval. Then, the Japanese government demanded over 100 revisions to try to answer the accusations of “airbrushing history”. The government points out that Japanese schools are not obliged to use the approved texts and, indeed, many do not. But to the Chinese and South Koreans, that is beside the point. It is unfortunate that Japan and its neighbours did not set up an equivalent of the Franco-German history textbook commission that, soon after 1945, sought agreement on a common account of the two countries’ bitter history.
Shortly after the 2001 row over history books, Junichiro Koizumi, on becoming Japan’s prime minister, caused even deeper offence by visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of all Japan’s 2.5m war dead since 1853 are symbolically interred, including those of 14 class-A war criminals who were executed in 1948. Mr Koizumi now visits the shrine annually, brushing aside the complaints of Japan’s big neighbours by arguing that the war dead must be honoured.
Disputed islets and a “renegade” island
This time, the row over school books comes in the wake of several other regional disputes. Japan’s Shimane prefecture designated February 22nd this year as “Takeshima Day”, underlining its claim to the disputed islands and triggering protests in Seoul. And recently the Japanese government took control of a lighthouse built by its nationalists on another set of disputed islands, which it calls the Senkaku, while China, which also claims them, calls them Diaoyu. China is sending ships to an area near the islands, looking for oil and gas, while Japan is thinking of doing the same, raising the scary prospect of a confrontation between their navies. On Wednesday, Japan began allocating gas-exploration rights in a disputed area of the East China Sea, a move that China called “a serious provocation”. The Japanese are angry that China has failed to provide data on its own gas projects in the area, which, they fear, could snatch reserves from fields that stretch under Japanese waters.
In February, it was China’s turn to get rattled, as Japan joined America in making a statement that Taiwan (which China regards as a renegade province) was a mutual security concern. China is also annoyed that Japan is pushing hard for a permanent, veto-wielding seat on the United Nations Security Council, where China is currently one of only five permanent members (the others being America, Britain, France and Russia). Were tensions over Taiwan or the Security Council to escalate, they would quickly dwarf the disputes over school books and uninhabited islets.
China and Japan have, of course, been rivals for the best part of a millennium. For much of that time, China had the upper hand. But from the mid-19th to the late 20th centuries it was in decline while Japan was in the ascendant. For the past three decades, since Deng Xiaoping began to convert China’s economy to market-led capitalism, China has been on the up again, whereas Japan has stumbled since the 1990s.
For all their rivalries, there are plenty of signs that Asia’s two great powers are edging closer together. Last year, China overtook America to become Japan’s biggest trading partner. Japan has been China’s biggest trading partner in three of the past four years. Moreover, both countries are working with neighbours to launch a broader and deeper East Asian Community. Most important of all, China and Japan, along with South Korea and Russia, have been willing collaborators in the American-led effort to persuade North Korea to relinquish its nuclear-weapons programme.
However, there has been no official visit to China by Mr Koizumi since October 2001, and none by the Chinese president to Japan since 1998, when Jiang Zemin went. Overcoming the bitter memories of the 20th century’s wars and building a genuine partnership to ensure they are not repeated will require movement by both sides. Japan could withhold approval from school books that sanitise the awful truth about its wartime record; and it could offer more compensation to the victims of its past occupations. As for the Chinese, it would require a willingness to sanction a joint textbook commission in which historians would be free to examine the two countries’ past, a readiness to give up anti-Japanese propaganda, and a willingness to engage in serious negotiations about disputed waters. Only then might East Asia finally consign its past conflicts to the history books.