NEW YORK — A friend of mine in Tokyo has sent me two recent proposals to improve Japan’s relations with its neighbors. One, by the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, deals with China and is addressed to both the Japanese and Chinese governments; the other, by the Kansai Association of Corporate Executives, deals with China and Korea and mainly lists what Japan should do to address the impasse.
If the former is diplomatic, the latter is “frank.” The Kansai report, in fact, is sobering in the details it gives of the great lengths to which the Korean and Chinese governments go to fan and perpetuate anti-Japanese sentiments.
South Korea, for example, has legislation to “investigate truths about anti-national ( ban-minjog ) acts during the forced occupation by Japanese imperialism.” The commission set up by the law consists of 11 members — four recommended by the president, four by Parliament and three by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It probes Koreans who worked for the Japanese administrative offices in Korea. One might presume that this commission is something that was created following Japan’s defeat in 1945 and that happens to be still functioning today. No. The law came into being in December 2004.
A year later, South Korea enacted another law to strengthen the statute by allowing confiscation of land and other assets of descendants of those who acquired the assets through collaboration with the Japanese. Little wonder, then, that some have noted that these are ex post facto laws and may violate South Korea’s own constitution.
A decade earlier, in 1994, the Chinese government headed by Jiang Zemin spelled out “an outline to implement patriotic education.” It aims to exalt the spirit of its revolutionary war. For the Chinese Communist Party, that war was, as a matter of historical fact, as much against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) as against the Japanese invaders. But the focus of this patriotism is against the Japanese, as the manuals for teachers colleges make clear.
The outline ordered creation of “bases ( jidi ) for patriotic education” — museums and such to illuminate, among other things, “important campaigns and battles during the Revolutionary War.” There are now 200 such “bases” located throughout China. They prominently display photos and artifacts showing the savageries of the Japanese. Teachers are instructed to illustrate the same with “slides and pictorials.”
Why did Jiang take such a step four decades after Japan’s defeat? One reason might have been the mounting need to stop and reverse the rapidly declining support for the Communist Party following the Tiananmen Incident. Another might have been personal: Jiang is known to have tried hard to hide the fact that his father collaborated with the Japanese military. Before Jiang, Communist China had mostly stressed its “friendship” with Japan.
China’s overt hostility to Japan is as contrived as its “smile diplomacy” once was. South Korea’s increasing stridency toward Japan may be equally contrived, but at least, as analyzed by the Kansai report, South Korea has a reason for which I have much sympathy: a desire for unification with its severed northern half. That, according to one of the scholars cited in the Kansai report, compels it to turn against Japan and, of course, against the United States.
Such political expediencies are part and parcel of history, any history. And, as everyone knows, the history of relations between Japan, China and Korea is long and complex. I, for one, don’t need to be told by the Kansai report that Korea’s irrepressible resentment of Japan may be derived from its view of itself as the legitimate avatar of China, cultural values and all, while Japan is considered no more than one of the Middle Kingdom’s outer tributaries.
I fondly remember reading a report from a Korean embassy in the mid-Edo Period (1600-1868) that graphically describes utter Korean disdain for Japan and, I must add, the Japanese willingness to go along with it. And the outlier dared trample upon the rightful heir — not just once, but twice, three times!
When it comes to Japan’s alleged historical revisionism or recalcitrancy, for which The New York Times, for one, loves to take Japan to task, one can only say: Everything is relative. China’s history textbooks are so one-sided that the Wall Street Journal once felt compelled to do a front-page article on the matter. South Korea apparently is not far behind.
In this regard, the Kansai report’s citing Hegel’s philosophy of history — that only with the “spirit” can a historian construct a history of his nation — may backfire. Historians of China and Korea do just that, albeit in somewhat outlandish ways.
The Washington Post once conscientiously compared Japanese history textbooks — yes, there are eight or nine — but it no longer does so, as far as I know. The upshot: Even the one textbook that seems to have created the furor that Japan as a nation is sweeping everything unpleasant or shameful under the tatami is left unexamined.
There is then the matter of the Japanese prime minister visiting Yasukuni Shrine. Kevin Doak, who teaches history at Georgetown University, has recently argued that it is fitting and proper for the Japanese political leader to visit the shrine. For a comparable act, he cites the U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, which houses some of what President Abraham Lincoln insisted on calling “rebels.”
Even if Doak is being unnecessarily “provocative” here, one can surely argue that the Tokyo Trial was based on ex post facto law. Some generals and admirals under U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for allied powers, are known to have said so.
Can noting such things persuade the unpersuaded? Hardly.
Chalmers Johnson — author of “MITI and the Japanese Miracle” and, more recently, “Blowback” and “The Sorrows of Empire” — urges, for the stability of East Asia, that Japan abandon its military alliance with the U.S. and strengthen its ties to South Korea and China.
I agree with him. But as long as the “unfriendly” stance toward Japan remains the national policy of those two countries, the efforts the two proposals suggest for Japan, such as promoting people’s diplomacy, are unlikely to do much “Toward Better Japanese-Chinese and Japanese-Korean Relations,” as the Kansai report’s subtitle advocates.
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