Why Japan revises war role

The 37th anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender Aug. 15 finds much of Asia unusually preoccupied with old events.

South Korea, for example, is celebrating its liberation from Japanese colonial rule with groups calling for a boycott of Japanese goods and even severance of diplomatic relations.

The Chinese news media are dominated by fresh descriptions of old atrocities, such as the notorious 1937 ''rape of Nanking,'' as well as newly published evidence of Japanese germ warfare experiments on human victims.

The sudden revival of long-buried memories has been provoked by Japan's efforts to tell its side of the war story -- specifically the revision of high school history textbooks to eliminate or tone down descriptions of the 1930s and '40s that imply Japanese wrongdoing.

China and South Korea are merely the most vocal in a growing chorus of protest that has spread from North Korea down to Singapore.

In Tokyo, an unhappy Foreign Ministry frets over the damage done to Japal's delicate relations with its neighbors. The Education Ministry that sparked the row remains unrepentant and defiant. And Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki apparently is fervently hopeful that his scheduled visit to Peking next month won't be affected. (A visit this month by Education Minister Heiji Ogawa was already canceled by China in protest.)

Two Japanese government envoys are in Peking for negotiations. So far they have found the Chinese sticking firmly to their demands that the alleged textbook distortions be eliminated. The prospect that Foreign Affairs Minister Yoshio Sakurauchi might have to precede Mr. Suzuki to China has been raised.

A ranking Foreign Ministry official, Akitane Kiuchi, this week told the Diet (parliament) in Tokyo that growing tension over the textbook issue has made it difficult to achieve a settlement of year-long negotiations over a South Korean request for several billion dollars in official Japanese aid, which had already strained relations.

A Seoul report Aug. 11 said a leading Japanese trading company, Marubeni, had become the first major victim of Korean anger, having lost an already tentatively awarded contract to build a $30 million liquefied natural gas pipeline in the port of Inchon.

The question might be asked: Why has Japan suddenly decided on the need to rewrite history?

In fact, the process has been under way for 30 years. But the current revisions are the most sweeping, and clumsy Japanese explanations of the need for such revisions have merely exacerbated foreign anger. A Japanese Cabinet member, for example, made a statement that the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula was justified and even beneficial.

Essentially, Japan feels it is now a powerful, free nation that doesn't have to accept other countries' version of history.

Over the past three decades, the Education Ministry, with powerful support from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has battled tirelessly for a ''correct Japanese view'' of the war, which it thought was ignored by the American occupation and then the left-wing-dominated teachers union (Nikkyoso).

A high-ranking ministry official recently recalled the ''humiliation inflicted upon Japan'' by such American occupation actions as banning geography and history, along with traditional martial arts, from the school curriculum, as well as requiring schoolchildren to learn an American-approved version of Japan's actions in the 1930s and '40s.

After the occupation, Nikkyoso took up the fight, promoting pacificism under the slogan ''don't send our students to the battlefields again.''

Japanese education over the past 30 years, in fact, has been a pitched battle between Nikkyoso and the Education Ministry, which the latter now feels it has won through the elimination of ''biased textbooks.''

The thinking of the ministry's Textbook Authorization Research Council is typified by one of its members, Professor Emeritus Shigeru Watanabe, who claims the use of the word ''invasion'' in regard to Japanese military expansion in China (now revised to a milder ''advance'') was influenced by Joseph Keenan, American chief prosecutor at the Tokyo war crime tribunal.

''He had to call it an invasion, otherwise he would have had no grounds to prosecute war criminals,'' the professor says. ''A similar perception was created among journalists and public opinion without critical scrutiny.''

The chief of the ministry's textbook authorization division, Kazuo Fujimura, added that using the word ''invasion'' suggested an evaluation, while school textbooks should only deal in proven facts.

For this reason the ''rape of Nanking'' -- in which up to 300,000 Chinese are believed to have been massacred by marauding Japanese troops -- is now being played down because the ministry insists the ''actual figure has not been reliably confirmed.''

The government has tried to defuse the issue by insisting it merely ''suggests'' textbook revisions.

Part of the government's motivation, it could be argued, is to promote national pride and patriotism and make possession of a strong defense force respectable again.

Even China and South Korea currently wouldn't argue too much about that. What they are objecting to is that the alleged whitewash of past Japanese actions is creating a distorted impression among younger Japanese that their country was the victim and in no way the aggressor in World War II.

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