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Japan ignores the history-textbook controversy at its peril. While many Japanese dismiss the tempest — exaggerated attention, they say, given to a small group of nostalgic conservatives or a freedom-of-speech issue best left to constitutional scholars — South Koreans see the new history textbook as a serious obstacle to improved bilateral relations between the two countries. It is difficult to appreciate the depth and intensity of the anger felt by South Koreans after the Ministry of Education approved the new textbook; even moderates warn that Japan’s failure to address South Korean concerns will have long-term repercussions in Northeast Asia.

The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform has created the problem. The group criticizes Japan’s history textbooks for being biased, claiming that the texts place too much emphasis on Japanese wrongdoing against its Asian neighbors and promote a “masochistic attitude” among young Japanese. The group’s “corrected” version, which downplays the scale and significance of the Nanjing Massacre, for instance, and the invasion and annexation of Korea in 1910, has triggered outrage in South Korea and China.

At a recent conference on “The Future of United States and Korean Economic and Security Cooperation,” the textbook controversy dominated discussions of Japan. While the South Korean participants, current and former government officials as well as think-tank and academic researchers, acknowledged the complexities of the issue — they are well aware of the fact that the text is only one of eight authorized for use in middle schools, that the government does not require that it be used and that it reflects the views of a small minority in Japan — they also stressed that the problem could undermine the entire Japan-South Korea relationship.

A former ranking South Korean Foreign Ministry official warned that the textbook controversy could undo all the progress that has been made since South Korean President Kim Dae Jung made his unprecedented offer of reconciliation in 1998. The textbook reformers created this mess, but the real culprit, in South Korean eyes, is the Tokyo government. It has failed to demonstrate the leadership required to deal with the problem. The two countries have established consultative committees to try to agree on a single history, but after nearly two decades of work, Japan has thus far refused to endorse their findings. That rankles. The South Koreans point to progress that Europeans have made toward creating a shared view of the past. They also note that the historical animosity between France and Germany is no less bitter than the ill will that divides Korea and Japan.

The South Korean government is trying to keep the firestorm from engulfing the entire bilateral relationship, but the problem is growing.

To contain the damage, the South Korean government has set up committees within the Foreign Ministry to deal with the issue. Still, there is growing fear that emotions are getting out of hand. Kim’s decision to recall his ambassador from Tokyo was a signal to the South Korean people that his government was not out of touch with public sentiment. One participant called it an attempt to “pacify” the South Korean public.

Japanese leaders need to understand that they are not bystanders in this process. The ill will that has been generated could have serious consequences for Japan. First, and most obviously, it threatens to undo all the progress that has been made in the bilateral relationship with South Korea. As Northeast Asia’s two most advanced industrialized democracies, South Korea and Japan have a natural affinity, which could form the foundation of a future alliance. The hard feelings created by this dispute will make any partnership difficult, if not impossible. One South Korean spoke darkly of a possible rupturing of security ties.

Analysts warn that South Korea could be forced to contemplate strategic alternatives. Both China and Russia have reasons to court Seoul. Beijing would see Seoul as a natural ally in attempts to check Japanese influence in the region. Russia needs every friend it can muster as it tries to regain its former status.

Second, Japan’s failure to address the issue and the pain it causes its neighbors undermines any hopes the nation might have to play a leading role in Asia. “This makes it very difficult for Japan to assume leadership in region,” said one South Korean. “Moral leadership is required.”

The South Koreans have two suggestions for settling the dispute. They propose that the study of history be routinized and systemized and that “a scientific approach to historical facts” be adopted. It is doubtful whether social science can ever achieve the same certainty about “facts” as natural science, but the process should be salutary for both countries. Investigative rigor and mutual respect can go a long way toward easing tension.

Second, and perhaps more controversially, the South Koreans insist that the United States get involved. As Japan’s most important ally, they argue, Washington has influence over Tokyo. In their eyes, America’s encouragement of a broader Japanese role in regional security obliges the U.S. to temper any nationalist impulse that might follow. And the revisionist claim that Japan fought the Pacific War to eliminate Western colonialism in Asia gives the U.S. a pretext to intervene: Washington should try to set the record straight.

Even without the new U.S. preference for a “less arrogant” approach to foreign affairs, Washington is unlikely to get involved. The U.S. has no desire to take sides in a spat between allies. Bland encouragement to resolve this dispute is probably as far as it will go in public.

That could be a mistake. While Japan should try to take the lead in helping to develop a shared view of regional history, U.S. involvement would provide some cover, as well as reduce the zero-sum dynamic of Japan-South Korea discussions. After all, the U.S. has a strong interest in a solid Japan-South Korea relationship, and in seeing that the third leg of Northeast Asia’s “virtual alliance” gets stronger still.

The risks of inaction increase over time. History does not grow dimmer as it recedes further into the past. Indeed, the study of the past very much determines how we view the future.

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