History talks with South Korea enter new phase

Kyodo News

Japanese and South Korean historians began on Saturday a new phase of joint history studies to try to narrow differences in their countries’ textbooks amid continuing disputes, such as the wartime sexual slavery issue.

The two sides agreed to hold two more years of discussions and compile a report based on their talks, according to representatives from the two countries.

“We also agreed to hold the next plenary session on Nov. 24 in Seoul and to hold the meetings of the various subgroups as appropriate,” Yasushi Toriumi, who heads the Japanese team, told a joint news conference after the one-day meeting in Tokyo.

The 34-member research committee, comprising 17 representatives from each country, basically discussed logistical matters in the inaugural session of the talks’ second phase, such as how to proceed with their research. The members include university professors, history experts and researchers.

Toriumi, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said specific matters to be taken up during the textbook talks will be decided in future discussions.

“The textbook issue is a major issue for both Japan and South Korea and as such we will fully study it,” he said, adding that their studies will take into account the two nations’ different textbook screening systems.

Japanese textbooks are prepared by publishers and approved by the government’s screening system. In South Korea, textbooks are compiled by the government.

Cho Kwang of Korea University’s College of Liberal Arts, who leads the South Korean side, said their report will serve as a reference for history scholars, textbook authors and publishers.

But taking note of Japan’s textbook screening, Toriumi said, “We cannot force them to apply it to the textbooks,” indicating that the outcome may not necessarily be reflected in actual published works.

The committee members are divided into four subgroups, with the subgroup dealing with textbooks an addition to this round of talks. The three others are the same as in the first round, which started in 2002; one on ancient history, another on medieval history and the third on modern and contemporary history.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun agreed in June 2005 that the second phase would cover the issue of history textbooks, with Roh saying the two sides would publicize the results and “make efforts” to reflect them in their textbooks.

Earlier that same month, the first round of talks wrapped up with a nearly 2,000-page report in which the Japanese and South Korean historians presented differing views on key historical events involving their nations, including Japan’s 1910 annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

Japan and South Korea have long been at odds over numerous historical issues, with critics saying Japanese history textbooks in particular whitewash Japan’s atrocities against its Asian neighbors before and during World War II.

The joint research aims to allow experts from both countries to share their interpretations of history to better understand how and why they differ, Japanese officials said.

But numerous experts believe this framework are not likely result in any breakthrough, given the fixed positions of both governments.

Andrew Horvat, a visiting scholar at Tokyo Keizai University’s International Center for the Study of Historical Reconciliation, said, “The government-appointed history committees . . . have no hope whatsoever of creating a shared vision of the past because they don’t have a mandate to do that.”

Citing one of the points of dispute, Horvat said, “There is no way that the Korean side can give ground on the widely held view in Korea that the 1910 Treaty of Annexation is illegal.”

Another dispute deals with the women recruited in Asian countries to provide sex for Japanese servicemen during the war, known euphemistically in Japan as “comfort women.” The majority came from the Korean Peninsula, which was then under Japanese colonial rule.