Japan Must Stop Distorting History

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Japan Must Stop Distorting History

Seoul-Tokyo relations appear to be forever bogged down in a cycle of Japan repeatedly alternating between conciliation and conflict with South Korea.

The Japanese people highly commend, and envy, Korea''s successes in peacefully transferring power, conquering the financial crisis that afflicted the nation in 1997 and dramatically advancing inter-Korean relations.

On the other side of the coin, ethnic Koreans in Japan are still regarded as second-class citizens with no suffrage, Japanese right-wingers support movements to revise school textbooks to distort history and the nation''s media still seem to harbor a grudge against Korea for winning the bid to co-host 2002 World cup soccer games.

Japan''s seesawing between these two perceptions of Korea is nothing new.

Bilateral relations appeared to be cruising smoothly, riding on the flow of global political changes, when the Kim Young-sam administration was inaugurated in 1992. But relations took an abrupt turn for the worse in 1995, the 30th anniversary of bilateral relations, when Japan canceled a planned meeting between the two heads of state after disputes that stemmed from Tokyo''s refusal to offer apologies for the aggressions and atrocities committed by Imperial Japan. Relations then deteriorated to the worst level since the two sides fought bitterly over the distortion of history in Japanese textbooks in 1982.

Similar patterns have been repeating themselves since the Kim Dae-jung administration was inaugurated in 1997. President Kim implemented a policy aimed at liquidating conflicts and liberalizing the introduction of Japanese culture to Korea.

This began a honeymoon period in Korean-Japanese relations, only to hit a snag due to Japan''s deeply rooted chauvinistic way of thinking. The evidence is the planned revision or deletion from its history textbooks of truthful descriptions of its colonial rule of Korea and the atrocities and war crimes committed by the Japanese military before and during World War II.

Whenever bilateral relations chilled in the past, Korea managed to win concessions from Japan, based on its need to maintain a relationship with Korea during the Cold War. This need disappeared when the Cold War ended a decade ago. Disputes over past conflicts now appear to be getting out of hand, prodded by rabble-rousing Japanese politicians who are systemically manipulating the media. Members of the media who advocate an objective perception of history are reportedly coming under attack and Japanese diplomats who point to distortions in the country''s history textbooks are collectively bullied by their peers. Such events hold a great significance not only for Japan but also for Korea.

These movements coincide with the Japanese political community floundering without strong leadership and they are sending distress signals about peace in Asia as well as about the nation''s democracy.

The South Korean ambassador to Japan, Choi Sang-yong, has even expressed his concern by stating that history cannot be erased easily like writing on sand.

It is true that the right wing''s continued attempts to distort history did not go entirely unchecked in Japan. One case in point is the Ienaga textbook screening suit. In 1965, Professor Saburo Ienaga, an established scholar of Japanese history, sued the government for controlling the way history is taught in schools through textbook screening. Professor Ienaga argued that textbook screening violates the freedom of expression and education guaranteed by the Japanese Constitution, and it is therefore unconstitutional and illegal. After 32 years of deliberation, the Supreme Court, did not completely accept Professor Ienaga''s petition in its final ruling in 1997, but nevertheless gave an impetus to portraying history accurately by ruling that four of the Education Ministry''s screening are illegal, including the deletion of the truth about the Nanking Massacre and the conscription of so-called comfort women forcefully recruited to serve as sexual slaves to the Japanese military.

But a matter of grave concern is a recent trend to distort history that was initiated by right-wing intellectuals and has spread rapidly to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and opposition legislators to become a political solidarity movement. These people maintain that the dark side of Japan''s past has been overemphasized in existing textbooks. By calling it a masochistic perception of history, they support a stronger control of history teaching through the textbook screening system.

The systems that put a brake on such movements are now crumbling in Japan, and there is no strong leadership to control them. Out of some 600 Diet members, only 7 reportedly received an overseas education. That is one reason the Diet adheres to an extremely narrow-minded nationalism.

This is why we have to devise countermeasures to prevent the current administration''s engagement policy toward Japan from being used as a legitimate forum for Japanese right-wing movements to distort history. The government''s sunshine policy toward Japan does not appear to be based on a future-oriented logic of reciprocity for mutual benefits and seems incapable of bridling such political movements by Japanese conservatives.
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