On a recent Korea Air flight from Narita to Inchon, South Korea, I was surprised when they showed images of air routes on the in-flight video system. The Tok-do islets in the Sea of Japan, the source of a Japan-South Korea territorial dispute, were shown as prominently as Tokyo and Seoul. The islets, known as Takeshima in Japan, are only 0.23 sq. kilometer, about the size of Hibiya Park in downtown Tokyo. The video image was no doubt intended as propaganda for foreign passengers.

Japan-South Korea friction also involves Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine (which honors Japan’s convicted Class-A war criminals as well as the war dead), alleged distortions in history textbooks for Japanese middle school students, and the violation of the Japanese fisheries law in late May by a South Korean fishing boat off Tsushima Island.

A report published June 10 by the Japan-South Korea joint committee for research on history failed to bridge bilateral differences and ended up listing arguments of both sides on most issues. Still, I hope the report marks the first step toward easing the strained political relations between the two countries.

Almost the only tangible fruit from last week’s summit between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun was that the two leaders agreed to continue joint research on history. Although it is unspectacular work, it must be carried on seriously.

The joint committee began discussions in May 2002 under a governmental agreement reached in 2001 to improve bilateral relations, which had become strained over passages in Japanese history textbooks. The report listed arguments and counterarguments on 19 subjects presented by Japanese and South Korean academics. Opinion was divided sharply over politically sensitive issues such as the Japan-Korea annexation treaty, Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic treaty.

Generally speaking, Japanese members appeared to present facts in an objective manner, while South Korean members sought to pursue the political significance of various subjects.

A South Korean scholar, for example, criticized the bilateral basic treaty as a product of political compromise, which he said was concluded without resolving disputes over Japan’s colonial rule. The scholar argued that South Korea and Japan should launch a new round of negotiations to revise the basic treaty and that Japan should simultaneously hold negotiations with North Korea to normalize bilateral relations. A Japanese scholar said he was surprised and disappointed by the South Korean member’s politicized arguments.

It looks as though representatives of both countries presented views that reflected ethnic and national interests, thus failing to narrow their differences. Committee members should hold discussions as scholars and experts free from such considerations.

Both countries plan to select new committee members for a second round of joint research, but as things stand now, the possibility of the committee agreeing on unified history textbooks is remote.

Separately, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean historians have finished compiling a unified supplementary textbook on modern East Asian history for middle school students. The textbook was published in the three countries, with the Japanese edition, “The History That Opens the Future,” released June 2.

The textbook starts with history of the three countries before Western powers intervened in the 19th century, and gives ample space to Japanese aggression against China and the Korean Peninsula. It also describes in detail the mass suicides by Okinawan civilians during the U.S. military attacks on the island in 1945, “comfort women” (sex slaves) for Japanese military personnel, problems of history textbooks, and Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

The textbook identifies neither North Korea nor South Korea as an aggressor in the Korean War and gives delicate descriptions of the volunteer Chinese People’s Army so that its reputation is not harmed. It presumably takes the view that both North and South Korea were victims of the Cold War.

A coauthor of the Japanese-language edition, Yoshifumi Tawara, says work on modern history was hindered by the Japanese government’s stopgap attitude, which prevented meaningful research.

Meanwhile, the Hiroshima Prefecture Teachers’ Union in Japan and the Taegu chapter of the South Korean Teachers’ Union published a supplementary history textbook in April that explains in detail the missions sent by the Korean king to the Tokugawa shogunate government between 1607 and 1811.

Both of the above books, compiled through cooperation with the private sector, show that Japan and other countries can share historical perceptions if they are willing to compromise.

Since the advent of Fuso Publishing Co.’s new history textbook for Japanese schools, there has been the growing tendency to criticize Japan’s soul-searching of its past conduct as “masochistic.” In addition, debate on constitutional amendments has prompted moves toward extreme nationalism in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. For example, the parliamentary secretary of the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry caused a stir when he said that convicted Class-A war criminals “are no longer criminals.” The education minister also got into trouble when he said he was pleased that references to “comfort women” were deleted from Japanese history textbooks.

In the past, several Cabinet ministers were forced to resign over slips of the tongue concerning historical perceptions, but lately officials making similar gaffes have managed to keep their jobs. It is hardly surprising that China and South Korea are wary of the Japanese government’s historical perceptions.

In all Japanese social studies textbooks approved this spring for use from the next school year, the term “comfort women” has been removed. Fewer passages were devoted to descriptions of the “Battle of Okinawa” — in which many civilians were forced to kill themselves in the final days of the Pacific War. All this appears to reflect voluntary restraints by textbook editors who took into consideration the views of the national government and local boards of education.

There appear to be increasing efforts to gloss over the disgraceful realities of Japan’s modern war. This is hardly the way to uphold the peace that Japan has maintained for the past 60 years. Japan must continue patient efforts to share historical perceptions with its neighboring countries to lay the foundation for an incipient East Asian Community.

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