NEW YORK — By way of criticizing Taro Aso as “Japan’s Offensive Foreign Minister,” a Feb. 13 New York Times editorial came up with a sweeping condemnation of the Japanese and their society by asserting that “public discourse in Japan and modern history lessons in its schools have never properly come to terms with the country’s responsibility” for its past deeds.

Actually, it’s a mantra the Times has created for its own use, and what it says “the rest of the world knows” is, in fact, nothing more than what the Times chooses to know. One trembles to think what it would do if it had to pick up a little more complex issue related to Japan’s past.

I recently translated into English two women poets of Korean ancestry in Japan, Cheon Mihye and Park Kyong Mi. When I referred to them as “Korean-Japanese,” an American friend gently suggested that the proper term is “Zainichi.” He is knowledgeable on such matters. But suppose the Times decides to touch on this odd identification of an ethnic group. Will it go beyond railing against the Japanese for their shameless discrimination of Koreans? After all, on its own, zainichi simply means “being in Japan,” as in Zainichi Beikoku Taishikan, the U.S. Embassy in Japan.

The term, as identifying the Japanese residents of Korean ancestry, dates from the political freedom in Korea following Japan’s defeat in 1945, which ended in the two-sided split of the Korean Peninsula. (The Soviet Union and the United States sanctioned the split in 1953.) One consequence was the firming up of ideological conflicts between the two groups of Korean residents of Japan, one with allegiance to the North and the other with allegiance to the South, each with a taxonomic name for its own group, both including the term “Zainichi.”

In recent decades, as political situations changed on the Korean Peninsula, a more neutral term became necessary. One result was the independent use of the word “Zainichi”; another, “Korian”; yet another, the most recent, “Korian-Japanese.” “Korian,” of course, derives from the English “Korean,” which, in turn, derives from the name of a dynasty that ceased to exist in 1392, Goryeo. These developments are clear in the title of a large anthology of poems written in Japanese by people of Korean ancestry that came out last year: “Zainichi Korian Shi-Senshu: 1916-2004.” This spring a 17-volume collection of Zainichi literature will come out.

The search by Japanese residents of Korean ancestry for the proper term for their ethnic identity has been akin to, but perhaps politically more fraught than, that of American blacks. Since arriving in New York, for example, I have observed the shift from “Negro” to “black” to “Afro-American” to “African American.” But will the New York Times even mention the parallels in Japan and the U.S.? Unlikely.

Even more unlikely is the Times changing its mantra when the matter comes to Japan’s actions before its defeat in World War II. Suppose the paper takes up what is regarded as one of Japan’s more infamous actions during its colonial rule of Korea: soshi kaimei, “creating surnames and changing personal names.” I bring this up because, in one poem, Cheon Mihye describes her mother, who was born in Japan in the 1930s, as using her “real” (Korean) name during her middle-school years but Japanese names thereafter. I first thought that part of the reason for this was soshi kaimei, but Cheon has since told me that soshi kaimei had nothing to do with it.

On the face of it, the law seems an embodiment of colonial arrogance, pure and simple, because it is generally thought to have compelled Korean people to adopt Japanese names. But, as Chung Daekyun, professor of humanities at Tokyo Metropolitan University, points out in one of his books on Korean-Japanese relations, the 1939 measure “is often misunderstood.” It consisted of two parts, one dealing with surnames, the other with personal names; the former was mandatory, the latter voluntary. There were two aspects of the part dealing with surnames — one required the registration of names, the other dealt with the names of those who did not register. Neither aspect of the mandatory measure forced or required “changing” or “abandoning” existing surnames, Chung says.

But even if neither the changing nor the abandonment of existing surnames was required, in practice it meant adoption of Japanese-style names for the majority, did it not? So why did the Japanese government introduce such a measure so late in its colonial rule? After annexing Korea in 1910, had it not left Korea’s domicile and familial naming systems alone?

Simply put, those systems emphasized the name of the ancestral place (bongwan) and the clan name. Korea was a patrilineal society. Until recent regulatory changes, women were unable to adopt their husbands’ surnames after marriage.

So one explanation for the introduction of the law is thought to be the desire to accelerate assimilation. But the reasons remain murky enough, in retrospect at least, to invite some to advance the idea that it came from people of Korean ancestry, rather than from the Japanese.

Considering the difficult history of black people in the U.S., such a suggestion strikes me as not entirely implausible, but I am certain that anyone positing such an idea has been roundly derided and denounced as an apologist.

The fact remains that the soshi kaimei law was something most of the Koreans “who valued family lineage could hardly tolerate,” as Ra Yeong Kyun says in her 2003 account of her family life under the rule of Japanese imperialism.

The truth, of course, is that Japan should never have annexed Korea, never have invaded it in the 16th century, never have sent soldiers there in much earlier centuries. Doing such things is, as a Japanese expression goes, “trampling into someone’s house in muddy boots.”

Still, the problem is not that “People everywhere wish they could be proud of every bit of their countries’ histories,” as the Times put it. Most people everywhere know such a wish is not achievable. What the Times fails to note is that the Japanese are among those who know that.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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