A PUZZLED look sweeps over the face of a Japanese tourist in a Seoul pottery shop. She is startled by the elderly Korean shopkeeper's speaking perfect Japanese. The young tourist, like many Japanese, was never taught in school that Japan forced Koreans to use the Japanese language during its 1910-45 occupation. South Korean students, on the other hand, study textbooks that leave little doubt of how Japan once dominated its smaller neighbor.
The difference in history textbooks between South Korea and Japan has been a constant source of friction, stereotypes, and debate since 1945, especially because textbooks are approved by education ministries with nationalist aims.
Many Koreans still hold deep, negative emotions about the Japanese, which skewed textbooks tend to reinforce. Scholars from each side tried to resolve textbook disparities in 1980: The talks ended in a shouting match. Now it appears there may be movement toward resolving the debate.
The shift began in 1982, when Japan's Education Ministry ordered textbooks to use the word "advance" to describe the invasion of Korea and China by the Japanese Imperial Army. An outcry by Beijing and Seoul forced the ministry to retreat.
The incident threw a spotlight on Japanese textbooks, which included such word usages as "volunteer" to describe Korean women sent to the war front to be prostitutes for Japanese troops.
In 1986, a Japanese professor, Hoei Fujisawa, wrote a little-noticed thesis that urged Japan to follow the example of West Germany and consult with its victimized neighbors to write accurate textbooks of its wartime history. The thesis caught the eye of Korean scholars who invited Dr. Fujisawa and about 20 other Japanese intellectuals to try again to reconcile their textbooks.
Their first meeting was held last March in Tokyo. This time the scholars decided to hold several more exchanges in hopes of resolving differences by the end of 1992.
"It is essential for Japan to convince Korea that it understands its past atrocities if it wants to become a player in Asia," says Park Song Su of the Academy of Korean Studies. "If corrections are made in textbooks, slowly attitudes will change," he adds. "Even if it takes 100 years, attitudes will change."
For more than 35 years, Japan's Education Ministry has prevented textbooks from being too explicit about the country's imperial past. Many words have been left purposely vague.
"Most Japanese found the war so horrible that they do not want to acknowledge Japan's responsibility for initiating the conflict," Fujisawa says. In addition, many ousted wartime leaders were given back government posts in the late 1950s and have influenced what went into textbooks, he says.
Leading politicians still try to alter interpretations of Japanese history. In 1989, for example, then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita said the question of whether Japan was an aggressor in World War II "is a task for historians." Last fall, author-politician Shintaro Ishihira claimed that the 1937 massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing by Japanese forces never happened.
"Japan's lack of recognizing its wartime past had distorted its democracy and prevented it from sincere relations with Asian countries," Fujisawa says.
The effort to correct history textbooks has no backing from Japan's Education Ministry, and Korean scholars resist making any changes to their own books, despite Fujisawa's charge that "Korean textbooks portray the Japanese as always being evil."
"We can't wait too long to act," says Fujisawa, "because a lot of young people are being mistaught."