Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Lessons of history

The events of the past week may seem to the casual observer to have the effect of a broken gramophone, every time the Japanese deal with issues pertaining to its past and its neighbours, a furore ensues. Is it merely a matter of the neighbours being oversensitive or does this herald a new age of Japanese insensitivity?

Isolation ward

In certain ways, Japan has not liberated itself from its closed door mentality, a set of attitudes that has existed since the first contact with the west , surviving gunboat diplomacy, modernization and the post war era. Though the country stands at the cutting edge of technology and is one of the most important economies, culturally and socially, it resembles its geographical appearance an island in dange of being dwarfed by the surrounding land masses and oceans. External influences are assimilated at the most superficial of levels.Whilst some may say the youth scene and consumer market are signs of a new openness, the basic lifestyle , systems of belief are uniquely and purely Japanese .
It is unsurprising, therefore , that the Japanese government and many of its people prefer to subscribe to a view of history that is at best revisionist and at its worst a self-justifying load of propaganda.

A Tale of 2 Cities

When it comes to comparisons regarding attitudes to World War II , Japan is often contrasted to Germany. Rightly so, for where Germany has been the model of openness, Japan has been the model of denial. That has contributed in no small part to the bitterness and raw emotions which flare occasionally in Asia.

To the non-Asian observer, it may seem to be the case of a dog refusing to let go of an old bone. To the Asian , it is a duty to remember this period of history with the accuracy and respect that it deserves, particularly when there are efforts to "innovate" historical facts. The indignation of Asian victims of the Japanese military machine in WWII is only strengthened when it faces the double standards that the rest of the world employs when dealing with issues of WWII . Whilst efforts by those with neo-nazi leanings to revise facts surrounding concentration camps and the inhumane treatment of the Jewish people would be greeted with loud condemnation, persistent Japanese efforts to revise history are curiously ignored. Often dismissed as merely a domestic issue of the Japanese , it is insult heaped on injury for their victims and a classic example of economic benefits outweighing moral concerns . One wonders if the American reaction be as non-existent if the Japanese had decided to gloss over Pearl Harbour or to refer to it as a liberation from American imperialist domination?! Probably not.

The Japanese wish to look to the future rather than the past. Fair enough, but developing the "ostrich" syndrome or collective amnesia is not a solution. It is pretty hard to convince the rest of Asia that they have been mistaken and only the Japanese have got the facts right.
The official line often used by Japanese diplomatic officials and law courts is the reference to post war treaties signed , which were to be the end-all for all WWII issues. There are 2 points to be noted. Firstly, these treaties were engineered by foreign Allied powers after the war, when most of Asia was colonized and what "independent" countries there were (like Korea or China) were in chaos. What kind of equitable agreements could there have been? Secondly, the American post war administration which took control of most post-war affairs in Japan may just have been a tad (gasp, gasp) biased in their treatment of the Japanese. A case of post atomic bomb guilt? To the Americans, the Japanese were victims, what seems to have been forgotten is that to the large majority of Asians, the Japanese were the transgressors. There were no fewer victims of Japanese wartime brutality across Asia than the victims of the atomic bombs. Could any legalistic treaty fully address the problems of comfort women or the human experiments conducted by the Japanese on prisoners of war? Incidentally, The latter was not even an officially acknowledged fact till the last 2 decades. Why? Well, the data on the effects of biological agents on humans proved to be useful to the US army and disappeared into that abyss called "Classified Information"

Dancing on raw nerves

Japanese reactions to the latest calls to apologise for the past must seem a tiresome repetition of the perennial cha-cha; denial, denial, innovate. What is disturbing is the new attitude of stiff arrogance with which the Japanese seem to face their detractors these days. This intractable attitude is hardly positive for any hopes of calming tensions in the region.
Recent moves in the last 2 years by the Japanese government have only increased the unease of its Asian neighbours. These include revision of the Japanese consitution, approval of revisionist Japanese history text, the increased drive to establish authority over disputed islands and the quest for a permanent UN security council seat . The increasingly arrogant and intractable nature of the Japanese government when facing the criticism that has greeted these events has merely revived the ghost of Japan's militarist past. Japanese insensitivity and lack of diplomacy vis-a-vis the disputed island and history text issues hardly speak well of the diplomacy required of a permanent security council member, rather it indicates the bullying nature of a country who has yet to face its past. There is more than a little irony that a country so insecure about its past is seeking a security council position.

The last time the Japanese were eager about expanding their power and status, it regretfully resulted in the tragedies of WWII. Not that circumstances are the same, but those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, or at least that's what history teachers would like us to believe. All the more so when the history text is not quite accurate.
The Americans may be all for a Japanese permanent security council seat, after all, they merely gain another ally in a council largely dominated by them. But can they guarantee that a leopard will shed its spots? Maybe the Americans should do some revising of history themselves, with particular focus on topics like Noriega and Saddam Hussein.

Resolving the unresolved

Only by facing the truth can the demons of the past and the stigma be truly exorcised. The Japanese people should bear that in mind the next time they conduct a mass amnesia exercise.

1st published on 10th April 2005