Lingering distrust of Japan extends textbook row

How history is taught remains contentious in Asia, affecting diplomatic ties and economic cooperation.

Korea is escalating its fight to force Japan to confront its World War II history: Four months after requesting changes to controversial middle-school textbooks not yet in use, Japan's stance remains little changed and South Korea is not backing off.

This week, South Korea's National Assembly recommended opposing Japan's bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Civic groups presented to the prime minister a 2-million signature petition, while protesters have burned Japanese leaders in effigy. Last week, the government froze military exchanges and suspended the introduction of popular Japanese cultural products such as comic books and video games.

All the efforts have had little effect on Japan's official position. Last week Japan said it would only make two of the 35 changes South Korea has demanded, and none of the eight that China has asked for. North Korea and Taiwan have also voiced objections to the new books.

The issue underscores the latent mistrust that many Asians still feel toward Japan, and could jeopardize areas of cooperation in the future, including cohosting next summer's 2002 World Cup matches. Policy coordination with Japan that is aimed at opening up North Korea and preventing it from building nuclear weapons could also suffer, note observers.

Seo Sue, a young fashion stylist here in Seoul, says that while she knows a lot about Japan's 1910-45 colonization of Korea, her Japanese friends know very little. When they visit Seoul, "They just wanted to shop and eat kalbi," she says, referring to Korea's famous barbecue dish. "I think changing history is not right. No matter what happened between Japan and Korea, lying about the fact is wrong," she says.

"Just talking about it makes me mad," says Han Hye-hyung, a college student in Seoul.

What the children might learn

The new middle-school textbooks claim that Japan's invasion of Korea was necessary for stability and aided its modernization, while the "war in the Pacific" was meant to liberate East Asia from Western imperialism. The thousands of Korean sex slaves who served Japan's Imperial Army are not mentioned, or are referred to as "comfort women" and characterized as volunteers.

"Is invasion modernization? Japan, reply!" read one sign held by a protester Wednesday at the Japanese Embassy.

"Japan, which beautifies the past, should reflect, introspect, and awake!" read another. Koreans from all walks of life have recently added their voices to this weekly gathering here of elderly Korean "comfort women" who demand an apology and reparations.

"We were victims and we cannot forget the scars in our minds," says a foreign ministry official who requested anonymity. "The base of our relations is to watch objectively what happened. They should vow not to repeat the past. And if they beautify the past, we cannot forgive them. We demand that they revise their textbooks to the end."

Japan has responded by saying there were no "clear mistakes" in the texts. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said: "The textbook issue is just one thing, and there are many areas in which we can cooperate with each other," according to Reuters. "We should not become emotional."

The conflict threatens to worsen, as Mr. Koizumi will soon visit Japan's Yasukuni Shrine, which venerates its war dead, including 14 war criminals convicted by the Allies after WWII. On Tuesday, Seoul asked Japan to remove 21,000 tablets from the shrine that are said to carry the spirits of Koreans who were forcibly conscripted into Japan's Army.

Japan's political atmosphere

However, it might not be so easy for Japan to do what its neighbors want. "The Nazis are history," says the South Korean foreign ministry official. From the Korean perspective, in contrast to Japan's attitude toward WWII, Germany has come to terms with the Holocaust and widely educates its people about the Nazis and their atrocities.

"But Japan's emperor and its [native Shinto religion] are not history," the official adds. "They're still reality. So Japan has a lot of difficulties in solving the past. And they don't want to admit their wrongdoings."

He also worries that Japan's politicians will have little latitude to maneuver because of next week's election for the upper house of parliament, and a September election for the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, even if Japan's government doesn't respond, the textbooks may be less accepted because of the protests. Concerned about offending neighboring countries, Japan's public schools and its teachers have been lukewarm to the texts, with only 20 percent choosing to use them so far, according to Korean press reports.

Japan's final decision about the books will come on the August 15, the meaning-laden day of Japan's defeat and Asia's liberation. "We are watching very closely," says the Korean official.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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