A truce is unlikely to herald lasting peace between Japan and its neighbours
JAPAN’S nearest neighbours have long been less ready than has the rest of Asia to forgive and forget the country’s aggressive past: a brutal colonisation of Korea in 1905-45 and a creeping occupation of China from 1931 leading to total war. Both projects were pursued ruthlessly and entailed civilian massacres, torture and slavery in factories, mines and military brothels.
So Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s new prime minister, has pleased the neighbours by promising that rule by his Democratic Party of Japan would transform Japan’s relations with them. He made the pledge in both Seoul, where he met South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, on October 8th, and then in Beijing at a three-way summit with China’s leaders. Unlike the weasel-worded Liberal Democratic Party, which long ran the country, Mr Hatoyama’s new government, he says, “has the courage to face up to history.”
Both Mr Lee and China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, were delighted. Dealing honestly with historical matters, they affirmed, would make it much easier to tackle contemporary challenges together—notably, getting North Korea to give up its nukes, and deepening economic co-operation. Mr Lee said Mr Hatoyama had opened the way for “future-oriented relations”. The talk now is of reviving old plans for an undersea tunnel linking South Korea and Japan. Emperor Akihito may visit South Korea, a first. Both South Korea and China have applauded Japan’s proposal for a jointly compiled history textbook.
If only it were so simple. For all the bonhomie now, past hopes for “future-oriented” relations have often been frustrated. One problem is disputed territory (see map). Japan contests Dokdo, a rocky outcrop controlled by South Korea, while China claims the Senkaku, held by Japan. In addition, Japan contests Russia’s control of four northern islands seized in August 1945. Over the years Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and Russian diplomats have all berated The Economist over our maps.
Japan insists Dokdo should be called “Takeshima”. The South Koreans insist on the “East Sea” in place of the Sea of Japan. Over Dokdo/Takeshima, the websites of Japan’s and South Korea’s foreign ministries wage a virtual war, with pop-up cyber “history halls” and the like (in South Korea’s case, in nine languages). Yet both sides look merely ridiculous. Japan’s justification glides over the fact that its 1905 claim marked a first step in imperial annexation. South Korea argues that Dokdo has been “Korean” since 512, but uses the name for a country that did not exist until 1948. Competing for legitimacy with North Korea, the South also insists on the “East” rather than the “Chosun” Sea, since “Chosun”, a much more common reference in old Korean documents, is these days associated with the North. Empty specks of rock do duty as stand-ins for wider and even touchier historical issues.
Things would be better if Japan were now readier to call a slave’s spade a spade. It has apologised many times for its brutal past, but only in vague terms, expressing “remorse” for ill-defined damage. Most apologies, including the one that has since become a template, by the then prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, at the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, appear to say sorry to the Japanese people first. Mr Hatoyama does not call for the imperial family to break the so-called chrysanthemum taboo by admitting guilt on behalf of the wartime emperor, Hirohito. Nor does he suggest that the Diet (parliament) pass a law expressing national contrition instead of merely making statements. So, on this, he does not look like a mould-breaker. But then the leaders of South Korea and China may not want him to be. Being able occasionally to beat Japan for its lack of remorse is not all bad.
But Alexis Dudden of the University of Connecticut points out* that as vague apologies proliferate, the human victims of imperialism, though winnowed by old age, are ever less ready to accept them. The many wartime “comfort women”, or sex-slaves for the army, of whom South Koreans made up the biggest number, for example, want individual apologies and redress from the state. Despite abundant and harrowing testimony, Japan admits only general responsibility. The foreign ministry refers not to the women, but to “the issue known as ‘wartime comfort women’”.
When America’s Congress called on Japan in 2007 to apologise for the comfort-women system, Ichiro Ozawa of the DPJ, now the party’s secretary-general, threatened a Diet resolution damning the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His demeaning of the comfort women was grotesque but symptomatic: even today, many Japanese believe the atomic horror washed away any guilt for devastation in other parts of Asia.
But then the South Korean government gets more worked up about Japanese claims on a guano-flecked rock more than it does about the comfort women. After all, many of the men sending women to the front were, well, Koreans, working for the colonial authorities. Later, from 1948, the instruments and executors of Japanese repression were hitched to the new South Korean state—under American military tutelage to boot. That is all too inconvenient to highlight today.
So official versions of history tend to veer away from the truth, not towards it. You only have to look at the Chinese history on display at the extravaganzas for last year’s Beijing Olympics or this month’s National Day celebrations. The first (traumatic) 30 years of the Communist Party’s 60-year rule were airbrushed out. History, as Simon Schama, a master of the craft, says, should be the instrument of self-criticism, not self-congratulation. Not just in dictatorial China, but also in democratic South Korea and Japan, history still has far to go if it is to serve that aim.