THE controversy that flared this fall over the disputed ``facts'' of Japan's colonial relationship with Korea is still causing repercussions in both nations. Thanks to some blunt statements by Masayuki Fujio, then Japanese education minister, about a degree of Korean acquiescence in Japan's turn-of-the-century takeover, Koreans - in both halves of that divided nation - were startled and angered by this latest display of insensitivity by a Tokyo official. Japanese candor is rarely welcome in Korea, particularly regarding the past. A readiness to denounce Japan is one of the few matters upon which South Korea and North Korea can act in approximate unison. Responding to subsequent expressions of Korean outrage, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone felt compelled to take the uncommon step of firing Mr. Fujio from the Cabinet. He was the first minister sacked in more than three decades. Mr. Nakasone then went out on a domestic limb by apologizing for Fujio's remarks while at the Asian Games in Seoul. His stated intention was to ``heal the wound.''
Nakasone's efforts will help soothe Korean feelings, but they also provoked conservative Japanese who are tired of Tokyo's caving in to foreign pressure. Though Shintaro Abe, a potential prime minister and former foreign minister and head of the party faction to which Fujio belongs, suffered politically from this misadventure, the arch-conservatives may ultimately benefit. The Fujio episode threatens to bestow on that faction an aura of political martyrdom, redounding to the benefit of the ultranationalist camp. The irony of the whole episode is that this conservative wing of Japanese politics has been especially supportive of South Korea. THIS latest flap has echoes of the causes and handling of the earlier textbook controversies centering on the proper interpretation of Japan's prewar roles in both China and Korea that aroused so much ire throughout Asia. Both cases are replete with signs of unsubtle manipulation of public opinion. Between the lines of each is a clear effort to publicize, legitimize, and cultivate patriotism by fostering public recognition of the differences and similarities in Japan's past and present global roles. This may work, but is a risky way to pursue what might be desirable goals. Generating emotional controversy is a dangerous course in international affairs.
If the Japanese national identity had been utterly dismantled and discredited at the end of World War II and the postwar state controlled by victors decisively influenced by the Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian victims of Japan's aggressive policies, there would likely have emerged a universal version of history with few problems for contemporary affairs. Instead, Japan's national identity and underlying mythology were left essentially intact by the occupation. The Japanese elites used by the United States to lead Japan's renaissance represented a continuum with the past, intellectually aware of past Japanese intentions and motives, and unwilling to sweep them permanently under the rug for the convenience of another nation's version of history.
Since World War II, all Asian states have pursued progress with varying agendas. Most have stressed nation building, with nationalistic pride front and center. A major exception has been Japan, which kept its nationalism prudently constrained for fear of relegitimizing its most chauvinistic aspects.
In recent years, Japan's great economic successes have infused a certain overt frustration over the low-key role relegated for so long to national pride. The Japanese people and their leaders chafed under self-imposed and externally sanctioned restraints on their international activism. Their restlessness produced both a new willingness to be more assertive in world affairs outside the economic realm and a new surge in respectable nationalism. There is nothing wrong with these desires; indeed, they deserve encouragement. As the historical controversies demonstrate, however, the past casts a long shadow over the present, into which some illumination is needed. It would be a serious mistake for Japan's reassumption of a major role in world affairs to be hobbled by the past.
Some Japanese, I think a growing number, view an earlier Japanese generation's motives and bellicosity in Asia in the context of those times and conclude that the Japanese nation should not abjectly accept all the blame. Though usually conceding that Tokyo's policies went terribly wrong as a result of domestic and external developments, these Japanese are reluctant to proclaim in perpetuity an all-inclusive national mea culpa. They also point out the positive aspects of Japan's prewar policies, how a small number of other Asians at certain stages in their historical development cooperated with the Japanese willingly and for their own reasons. Little of such Japanese thinking is well understood outside Japan; still less is accepted on its own terms.
Asians and Westerners who choose for nationalistic reasons or from ignorance to play down unhappy nationalistic elements in their own history, and who suspect assertive Japanese of whitewashing Tokyo's past excesses, are seldom receptive to Japanese candor, particularly as hamhanded as Mr. Fujio's. Moreover, to this audience what is often referred to as Japanese ``historical revisionism'' has ominous overtones. They fear that a revival of Japanese nationalism would turn ugly. They fear becoming Japan's victims again.
Such fears, if acted upon, could easily become self-fulfilling. Japanese who find their pride and assertiveness constrained a priori because of flawed assumptions, partially biased by projections based on interpretations of the past, may become even more assertive to overcome their frustrations.
One useful way to deal with this growing and potentially divisive problem is for all parties to reassess the past with some empathy.
It should be recognized that ``historical revisionism'' is frequently a misnomer when applied to the Japanese reexamination of their past. And we are discovering that much remains unchanged in Japan's fundamental views. Surprised that the Japanese do not necessarily view things the way we assumed, the open reassertion by Japanese of a long-concealed intellectual continuity appears to be revisionism. Clearly, non-Japanese must become more familiar with what Japanese say and why they say it. SIMILARLY, while non-Japanese strive to understand Japanese perspectives, Westerners and other Asians might engage in some candid revisionism of their own excesses and myths. How much have the victors over, and victims of, Japan skewed versions of history by demonizing the Japanese aggressor in World War II? Clearly, this occurred, persists, and contributes to contemporary problems.
Instead of wallowing in mutual recrimination and allowing destructive invective to trouble our futures, current friends and former enemies of Japan should join that nation in working assiduously toward a collective view of history that is candid about all parties' faults and virtues. That is a tall order. Still, it is a laudable goal. Moreover, it is a multilateral problem that should be faced up to in all relevant countries lest the problem intensify - and be exacerbated by those pursuing parochial interests.
Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. The views expressed are his.