Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Teaching distorted history in Japan?

SEOUL: One history textbook cannot change the world. We are well aware that the textbook in question isn't even the only history textbook that will be used in all middle schools around Japan.

It is merely one of the eight draft textbooks that will likely be approved by Tokyo's Education Ministry to be used at Japanese middle schools for five years beginning 2002. Also, Japan's imperialist aggression and atrocities committed against its Asian neighbors in the early 20th century constitute just one chapter out of its long history.

Nonetheless, it was highly provocative for Hosei Norota, a member of the Japanese Diet, to comment that "Japan liberated other Asian countries from Western colonial powers and helped them attain prosperity."

In a similar vein, Nobukatsu Fujioka, a professor of Tokyo University, needed to be reminded that many of some 200,000 women from other Asian countries were not very much older than today's middle school students in Japan, when he said that "there is no educational merit in describing comfort women or prostitutes in textbooks."

Fujioka is one of leading members of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a radical right-wing association of various professionals.

Citing another reason why the comfort women issue, among other historical facts in question, must not be taught to Japanese students, he said that "military comfort women" is an "inaccurate and inappropriate slang expression creating misunderstandings about historical facts" and that "reference to comfort women includes fabricated information based solely on dubious testimonies."

Undoubtedly, he was either ignorant or dishonest to make such a brazen statement.

The controversy over Japan's history textbooks could probably be mistaken as an issue which has spilled over from World War II, arising from the unresolved grudge on the part of the victims of Japanese militarism.

But this is a grossly wrong perception -- at least from the standpoint of many Asians who remember Japan's brutal past as well as some conscientious Japanese who are concerned about the resurgent nationalism across their islands.

Japan's history textbooks, containing distorted accounts or omitting important historical facts, pose a potentially serious issue for the future of Asia and the world. It can be a dangerously irresponsible attitude for all parties concerned to brush it aside as a leftover problem from the past.

For Korea, in particular, building a "forward-looking partnership" with Japan without settling correct scores about the unhappy past may turn out to be a naive illusion leading to a repetition of the same mistakes and tragedies.

In this regard, the government's relatively adamant response to the latest moves in Tokyo may be viewed as a desirable shift from its earlier stance. Since its advent three years ago, the Kim Dae-jung administration has made consistent efforts to maintain amicable relations with Tokyo, forging an agreement on a "new partnership for the 21st century" and opening doors for the once forbidden exchange of popular culture.

Like his "sunshine" policy toward North Korea, however, Kim's Japan policy has often drawn criticism for being unilaterally generous.

This doesn't mean that previous Korean governments had wisely coped with the Japanese attempts to make arbitrary interpretations of their history to serve their national interests.

In this context, Korean society at large -- including the academics, the media and the civic organizations -- must acknowledge that this enduring war of knowledge and reason requires far better strategies than evanescent emotional responses or a few telephone calls between high-ranking officials in the two capitals.

Regrettably, the Japanese Education Ministry is reportedly expected to approve the textbook submitted by the controversial right-wing society.

The society allegedly aims to achieve a "complete overhaul" of history education in Japan, which it considers to be "perverse and masochistic."

The society laments the "loss of a national history and Japan's submission to other Asian nations regarding its perception of history."

On the contrary, however, Japan will never be justified for teaching a selfish and sadistic version of its national history to the young generation. It is not only morally unjust but politically dangerous.

Korea needs to efficiently tackle this issue with multidimensional approaches. The government must make its position clear that approval of the textbook will damage the bilateral relations between the two countries.

On the civic level, a joint academic panel will be useful for a long-term endeavor in writing a correct version of history concerning the two neighboring countries. The two Koreas may also cooperate in this endeavor.

-- The Korea Herald/Asia News Network