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Panelists at the May 23 trilateral symposium were sharply divided over the issue of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which has in recent years become a symbol of the emotionally charged debate between Japan and China.

But some of the participants had at least one common view — that both countries need to do something about their modern history education.

Yukio Okamoto, a former special adviser to the prime minister, said Yasukuni is an issue that Japanese people should think about as their problem, rather than being dictated to by foreign pressures.

At the same time, the Japanese public should have a correct understanding of the debate on the issue that is taking place outside of the country, he told the audience.

To defuse tensions deriving from the past hostilities between the two countries, Okamoto said China should first stop its “patriotic” history education and propaganda campaign that instill anti-Japanese sentiments in its children and youths by emphasizing Japan’s wartime aggression against China.

Japan, for its part, needs to correct the problems in its school education in which most students learn little about modern history, including what Japan did to China and other Asian neighbors before and during World War II, he stressed.

“The other day, I gave a lecture on Japan-China relations to about 150 students at a university, and I asked them if they had been taught about modern history after World War I at high school. Only 10 percent of them said yes,” Okamoto said.

“While China teaches its youths an exaggerated version of what Japan did, Japan is producing young people who are not taught about modern history at all,” he lamented. “This way, the gap between the two countries will only widen.”

Cui Liru, president of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said his country emphasizes modern history education “because it’s important to China and important to China-Japan relations.”

“But I think that we have not been doing enough . . . to educate youths about history after World War II,” Cui said, noting that China should do more to teach its children about Japan’s postwar pacifist policies and economic miracles, as well as its aid that supported China’s development.

Cui said differences that set Japan and China apart are often caused by “misperceptions and misunderstandings.”

As geographically close neighbors that both use kanji characters in their language, “We think we understand each other better than we understand (Western countries like the United States), but more often than not that is not true,” he said.

American experts meanwhile warned that the Yasukuni issue is spilling over into U.S. interests in Asia.

Kurt Campbell, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Yasukuni issue has “undermined decades of good will and has caused Japan to lose altitude and air speed in Asia, not just with China but in South Korea and elsewhere.”

“So much so, it’s not just hurting Japan but it’s hurting the U.S.,” he said, expressing concern that Washington’s silence could be taken by Asian nations as its endorsement of Japan’s policy on the issue.

Michael Green, a senior adviser and Japan Chair at the CSIS, said it was a “mistake” for China to make Yasukuni “the litmus test in Japan-China relations.”

“It would be an even bigger mistake for the U.S. to implicitly endorse that litmus test by officially — publicly or privately — talking about Yasukuni or the history issue.

“But I agree that it is a strategic problem for Tokyo and Washington that Japan’s presence in Northeast Asia is not strong” because of the Yasukuni issue, Green said.