Saturday, April 23, 2005


("wen1 gu4 er2 zhi1 xin1" - "to study the past helps to understand the present")

I've gotten sort of exhausted by the issue of China's grievances with Japan in recent days. The level of emotion generally runs high in any online discussions of this topic, and unfortunately the same arguments tend to get repeated...and rehashed...and reiterated...

But this article in the UK Guardian gives some much-needed context to those images of angry Chinese students throwing bottles at the Japanese Consulate and smashing the windows of Japanese restaurants. And any involvement of the Chinese government in the protests and in the manipulation of anti-Japanese sentiments does not invalidate the very real basis for these emotions.

Writes the Guardian's Tokyo correspondent Martin Jacques:
After centuries of isolation, Japan's rapid industrialisation after 1867 catapulted the country into the ranks of the advanced world and left its neighbours trailing in its wake. This disparity served to further distance Japan from Asia and fuelled the kind of supremacist attitudes which saw Japan colonise Korea and Taiwan, north-east China and then briefly, during the second world war, most of south-east Asia, often with considerable barbarity.

After Japan's defeat in the war, it grudgingly admitted partial responsibility for its actions but it never went through anything like the kind of cathartic process that was to transform Germany. Guilt was confined to an ambiguous and cryptic form of words, plus an economic largesse towards its Asian neighbours, China included. For Japan, money was easier and less costly than coming to terms with its past. The United States, which governed Japan for a brief period after the war and which has remained its protector and ally ever since, made little or no attempt to persuade Japan to do more; its interests lay in resisting communism in China, Korea and Vietnam, in which it saw Japan as a valuable ally. Not surprisingly, Japan's reluctant expressions of remorse, repeated again yesterday by prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, have never measured up to the profound sense of grievance felt by its neighbours, especially China and South Korea. As a consequence, the issue has festered and the wounds remain; unlike in Europe, there has been no closure. It is one of the reasons why Japan has never been able to exercise the kind of regional influence that its status as an economic giant would imply.

Indeed, Japan has remained peculiarly aloof from its own continent. In many respects, it likes to consider itself part of the west. But as east Asia has been economically transformed over the past 30 years, that mindset has become increasingly unsustainable. East Asia is no longer its impoverished backyard, but a vibrant and increasingly powerful region that demands respect. Japan's ostrich-like attitude towards its own past has left it with feet of clay. It seems uncomprehending towards the huge resentments that animate not only the Chinese, but also the Koreans, Filipinos and many others. Indeed, it appears almost nonplussed by the latest protests, a sentiment reflected in Koizumi's statement yesterday, which merely represented a repetition of previous utterances. It would not be difficult - in theory at least - for Japan to disarm its critics by a sincere display of remorse, by a willingness to engage in open bilateral investigations of the past, in a heartfelt rather than grudging mea culpa. If anything, though, it is moving in the opposite direction, becoming more inflexible and less willing to demonstrate contrition.
I read a post yesterday on East Asia Blog from a Japanese poster, who said that the Class A war criminals in the shrine were only "war criminals" because of the Allies' post-war kangaroo court. I'm not knowledgable enough about those trials to fully judge that statement, and this is just one Japanese opinion, but it strikes me as evidence of the lack of national soul searching in Japan about its role in WW2 that this article cites.

Well, I'm sure there isn't a country in the world that couldn't do with more soul searching about its own history, mine most certainly included (especially right about now). But I think that comparing Japan and Germany on how this issue was handled is certainly instructive. I'm sure there are still residual worries about a strong Germany in a united Europe, but they are pretty residual at this point. Germany's reunification provoked minimal fear among its neighbors, for example. Ask Japan's neighbors how they feel about a remilitarized Japan, and I imagine you'd get a vastly different response. Indeed, Jacques, writes, "in the present Sino-Japanese spat, it is difficult to think of a single country - with the possible ambiguous exception of Taiwan - which sides with Japan. South Korea's sentiments, for obvious reasons, lie overwhelmingly with China. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have all expressed sympathy with Chinese sentiments. Japan has only itself to blame: it is the author of its own estrangement and it shows no sign of being willing to do anything about it."

And if China is to become the dominent power in Asia, in Japan's place, how will China be regarded by its neighbors?

Of course, it will all depend on how China manages its "peaceful rise." But that is a topic for another post...


joann said...

Another very insightful post with links to more insight-full-ness.

You and the link sure put into words what I think and probably a few others.

By the way, do you know the chinese words for "sorry" and the words for "forgiveness" ?

And similarly, I read on another blog/blog comment about Japanese words for "sorry"...

And another thought would be... do either cultures have mythology, ancient stories, and history, of what being sorry is and what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness, etc, is this a western concept? And perhaps, would that be why Europe/Germany had a different result.

I've been rather curious about this the last few months. :)

Other Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Other Lisa said...

Let me try that again...

Wow, these are all really good questions. I do know words for "sorry" and "forgiveness," but not necessarily the right words. And a lot of the arguments tend to hinge on what seems on the surface to be trivial semantics. But words carry a tremendous amount of freight; the meanings they convey are not trivial. Nor are the actions. I really do think that the visits by Koizumi (sp?) to the Yasukuni Shrine are indicative of either lack of true remorse or complete thick-headedness or some combination of both.

I can't really speak to concepts of forgiveness in Chinese/Japanese culture, though certainly there is an emphasis in Chinese culture on "right action" and self-cultivation that I think would imply the need to address one's own misdeeds. In terms of the West, certainly Christianity has the idea of forgiveness and redemption at its core. But I think for a number of reasons, Germany was forced to more actively confront its misdeeds than Japan was, which I gather had much to do with the geopolitics of the time (Japan serving as an American bulwark against Soviet expansion and all that). Also, there was evidence of Germany's crimes on German soil, which did not exist in Japan. Maybe that made it harder for Germans to deny their country's crimes. Germany had been one of the centers of European civilization, of culture, music, learning. I imagine that most Germans wanted desperately to purge themselves of the impulses that had turned this enlightened, civilized country into a perpetrator of mass assembly-line genocide. For whatever reasons, Germany as a nation realized that it needed to face and understand what it had done. Germany had been perhaps unjustly humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles; Nazism was fueled by a victim mentality that developed out of this unjust treatment, a desire for revenge from "the stab in the back."

Of course, Japan was also a modernized, incredibly developed culture. As the author states, perhaps Japan's isolation and relatively advanced stage of development fueled its notions of superiority to its less developed neighbors - I read a fascinating book about how Japanese intelligensia in isolation idealized Chinese civilization - and when Japanese were finally able to visit China after the Meiji restoration, they were shocked and even angered when the Chinese reality did not measure up to their expectations. But I've kind of wandered off-topic here...

Bottom line is, the Western powers did not force Japan to confront its crimes as they did Germany. Germans had the evidence of what they'd done in their own country. And maybe there IS something in the German character that is more prone to guilt-ridden soul-searching. Who coined the word "angst," after all?

But I'm pretty much talking off the cuff (which is to say, out of my ass). I'd love for anyone who really knows this stuff to chime in.