Voices of conscienceKoreans welcomed the statement signed by 187 historians on May 7. Korea now has a solid alliance criticizing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s whitewashing of his country’s wartime past. As a former Tokyo correspondent, I was surprised, and embarrassed, as I knew about the tendencies of many professors who signed the statement. In the second sentence of the statement, they acknowledge their pro-Japanese stance: “Because Japan is a second home as well as a field of research for many of us, we write with a shared concern for the way that the history of Japan and East Asia is studied and commemorated.”
Of course, the scholars have different views. One of them is Herbert Bix, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.” He argues that the beginning of historical distortion was the failure to convict Emperor Hirohito, an activist monarch who actually participated in the war. Bix read books on comfort women in high school and majored in Japan studies at Harvard University. He pointed out that no country voluntarily repented for its history, and Germany is an exceptional case. West German politicians were conscious of France and East Germany, which harshly censured Nazi Germany, and they realized that Germany’s political status was enhanced domestically and internationally as they apologized for the past. However, Bix is skeptical that might happen in Japan.
Bix is actually an exception among the Japan scholars who signed the statement. Many more are pro-Japanese. Harvard University’s Ezra Vogel has been a diehard Japan advocate since he published “Japan as Number One” in 1979. Stanford University’s Daniel Sneider has a similar stance. Upon analyzing history textbooks of Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan, Sneider claimed Japanese textbooks were the most objective and neighbors have no right to criticize them. Many of the scholars’ spouses are Japanese - only one is ethnic Korean - and the list includes 20 ethnic Japanese scholars.
The impact of the joint statement was powerful. Aside from Asahi Shimbun, which published the entire statement, other Japanese media seemed to have a hard time interpreting it. They skipped substantial points of the statement and diluted the focus as a criticism of Korean and Chinese nationalism. In fact, the scholars made accommodations for Japan. The statement was originally scheduled to be released prior to Abe’s U.S. visit, but was delayed until he returned. Nevertheless, a Japanese cabinet minister had “no comment” regarding the statement. Abe had nothing to say, either. He has long argued that the forcible nature of the mobilization of military comfort women should be left to historians and scholars. Following Japan’s prestigious history research group, American, European and Australian scholars confirmed it is a verified fact that comfort women were forcibly mobilized for sex slavery with the military’s involvement. Since there are no historians who can counter their unified argument, Abe’s claim collapsed miserably.
Personally, I noted the participation of Stanford University’s Peter Duus. He argued it was not inevitable that Japan turned Korea from a protectorate into a colony, and if Korean elites had formed a stable force and asked for Japan’s help, Korea could have remained independent. While Duus admitted his lack of Korean language proficiency in the preface to his book, his theory is considered a textbook on East Asian studies in the United States. It is our sad reality that a paper that could counter his argument has not been written in English.
While Korean historians are trapped in resistant nationalism, unexpected research outcomes were found by Kentaro Yamabe (1905-1977). He unearthed the hidden truth of the Gapsin Coup, the murder of Empress Myeongseong and the annexation process. He proved the cruel suppression of the Donghak Revolution by the Japanese military and illegal trampling of Gyeongbok Palace. He also was the first one to find the documents proving that the Dokdo islet was not Japan’s original territory. Yamabe spent his life digging among the piles of distorted public records in the National Diet Library’s archive to discover these valuable records. What is more amazing is that he only had an elementary school education. He deserves special recognition and respect, and as a Korean, I feel embarrassed at the same time.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 12, Page 34
*The author is the senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho