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International Herald Tribune
Letter from China: In Asia, the past divides and alienates
By Howard W. French
Thursday, March 8, 2007
SHANGHAI: Imagine a world where Germany denied the Holocaust, the United States denied the slaughter of Native Americans and Europe denied organizing its immensely profitable and centuries-long trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves.
Why would they bother? Presumably because they thought cleaning up these dark blots on their past would boost their self-esteem, enhance patriotism and raise their stock in the world.
Close your eyes, spin on your toes three times and reopen them to behold a world where precisely this sort of thing goes on: today's East Asia.
In many respects, this region has been a guiding light for the rest of the world in the past three decades or so, building strong global economies, providing near-universal education for its people and lifting huge numbers of citizens out of poverty.
As we were reminded in the past week, however, a more honest and sophisticated attitude toward history, however, has not been one of the bright spots.
For there was Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, insisting "there is no evidence to prove there was coercion" of the 200,000 or so Asian women who historians say were pressed into sexual servitude for Japan's imperial army.
Trying to explain how this might be, members of Abe's governing Liberal Democratic Party made what they thought was a helpful suggestion. "Some say it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies, who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs and set prices," said Nariaki Nakayama, leader of a group of 120 Japanese lawmakers who want to rescind a 1993 official declaration acknowledging the imperial army's exploitation of what are euphemistically called "comfort women."
"To say that women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark," Nakayama continued. "The issue must be reconsidered, based on truth, for the sake of Japanese honor."
Honor and history, as we can see, make poor bedfellows, with the typical result that both end up suffering.
The comfort women comments emanating from the Japanese political class brought a rare rebuke from the country's closest ally, the United States, in the form of a statement by John Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state, who during a visit to Tokyo said "the forced mobilization of comfort women is the most deplorable act of the war."
Even North Korea managed to hitch a ride on the high road on this issue. Korean women constituted perhaps the largest group of wartime sex slaves, and Japanese obfuscations are particularly resented on the Korean Peninsula. A North Korean group that calls itself the Measure Committee for Demanding Compensation to "Comfort Women" denounced Abe as "the grandson of a Class A war criminal," which in fact he is, and said that as such, Abe is "obliged to more straightforwardly and sincerely reflect on the past crimes of Japan than anyone else, and settle them."
The response of the Chinese government, to its credit, has been carefully measured throughout this flap. China and Japan have been enjoying a tentative détente under Abe, following the bitterness of the Koizumi years, when the former Japanese prime minister made regular pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where Class A war criminals are honored, along with the souls of all of the other fallen soldiers from Japan's modern wars.
"History, in my view, is a strong progressive force," China's foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, said at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday. "It should not become a burden to the progression of peace."
Unfortunately, that is precisely what it has been doing in this part of the world, where the wounds and fissures of the World War II and of the Cold War have been much slower to heal than they have been in the West.
The reasons for this are, of course, complex. Korea remains divided in two. China remains authoritarian, still ruled by a Leninist party, even as it becomes increasingly capitalist. And Japan, having failed to integrate Asia by force of arms, has remained largely alienated from its own continent, clinging out of misplaced pride to a distorted and self-defeating picture of the past.
People everywhere want to feel good about themselves, and for many countries an accretion of national myths, often laid down over centuries, helps make this possible. East Asia's two big powers, Japan and China, share more than either would care to acknowledge in this regard, taking this process one big step further, through the promotion of what each calls "patriotic education."
Abe arrived in power after a lengthy association with this current of nationalist politics. Though they would never admit it, what he and his allies have been striving for is something that has long existed in China, an airbrushed version of history that leaves little room for anything cruel or embarrassing.
Japan's nationalists long for a youth that is proud and patriotic. China already has one, and this has been achieved, in part, by carefully tailoring education, filling young people's heads with unrealistic and unreliable information about their country's past — so much so that it is almost impossible to resist a snicker whenever Chinese leaders lecture the Japanese about respecting "correct history."
Young Chinese tend to know next to nothing about their country's own conquests, or even about atrocities committed in living memory by their own government. What they are taught is what Japan's nationalists seek to teach: their own essential goodness.
The reason this all matters, though, has nothing to do with what might be called the tsk-tsk factor, and everything to do with the real world we live in. Limiting one's history to what is emotionally or ideologically satisfying is to limit a nation to the most parochial of destinies. And when countries with deeply intertwined pasts persist in doing this, new collisions can never be far off.
Tomorrow: Roger Cohen on the brief Swiss invasion of Liechtenstein.