Friday, April 15, 2005

The Lessons of History

The victors write the history books. You’ve probably heard that many times. Yet the Japanese, defeated in World War II, have been writing and re-writing the history of their version of the Great Pacific War for the past twenty-five years. The latest revisions to history texts to be used in Japan’s public schools have added one more element to an increasingly volatile situation in Northeast Asia, one that was punctuated by anti-Japanese disturbances in major Chinese cities last week.

In the 1990s Japan seemed ready to confront its past. Textbooks were franker in discussing the atrocities and abuses of the Imperial Japanese Army. The government adopted screening guidelines for new texts that obligated writers to take into account sensibilities of Japan’s neighbors.

Since then, however, Japan seems to have regressed. For example, all seven junior high school history textbooks authorized in 1996 used the term “military comfort women,” referring to women, mostly Korean but also women from other occupied countries, who were pressed into serving Japanese troops.

Not one of the eight textbooks approved this month even mentions the term “comfort women.” Moreover, some of the new civics texts that originally had referred to such contested islands as the Senkaku as being “disputed” now describe them as indisputable Japanese territory.

It should be noted that no single textbook is taught uniformly throughout Japan. The Ministry of Education, through its Textbook Authorization Research Council, reviews a number of books submitted by textbook publishers as meeting basic academic guidelines, and provincial education boards are free to choose or reject them. Some teachers simply ignore the texts, just as they sometimes refuse to stand for the national anthem or the flag.

Influential nationalists, such as Tokyo’s governor Shintaro Ishihara, still deny atrocities such as the Nanjing massacre and oppose anything that suggests that Japan’s motives in the war were less than pure. The latest books were compiled by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which is an avowedly nationalistic organization.

The education ministry also seems to be, at present, a bastion of conservatives. Parliamentary vice-minister Hakubun Shimomura recently described a requirement that historical accounts take into consideration sensibilities of Japan’s neighbors as a form of “masochism.”

From an American point of view, these endless disputes over history seem pointless, and some of the complaints seem extraordinarily picayune. A decade ago relations with China and Korea were roiled over a single word -- “advance” – rather than “attack” or “invade” used to describe Japan’s invasion of China and Southeast Asia. One has to wonder what American parents of junior high school students would say if their children were forced to learn about sexual slavery. “What is a comfort woman, teacher?”

And it is not as if China is so frank about the darker elements of is own history. Try to find an accurate portrayal of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen protests and bloody aftermath in any Chinese text. But, of course, that has to do with China’s own history. A different dynamic comes into play when history involves another country.

I wonder how many of the Chinese students who were chanting “whitewash,” as they threw stones at the Japanese embassy last week had any real idea of what was actually in the Japanese history texts, or cared. There is a subtext to the textbook issue. What is really behind the protests is China and Japan’s place in the new pecking order.

The balance of power in Asia is shifting with the rapid rise of China. Premier Wen Jiabao reflected China’s new assertiveness during his recent four-day visit to India, when he said, “Only a country that respects history, takes responsibility for post histories and wins over the trust of peoples in Asia and the world at large can take greater responsibilities in the international community.”

Note that he took it upon himself to speak for “Asia,” not just China. It is worth noting that there have been no anti-Japanese riots in Southeast Asia, which in the 1970s was the location of many such disturbances, many of them violent. But then no Southeast Asian country thinks of itself as being in competition to lead Asia.

Not so for China and Japan who have been rivals for the better part of the last thousand years. It should not be surprising that they are still jockeying for primacy in the region. The two countries are still influenced by their common Confucian culture. In Confucian terms, somebody has to be “big brother” and the other “little brother.”

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