There are big problems in China as demonstrators in several cities engage in protests against Japan, calling for boycotts of Japanese products and even making threats of violence — one protestor brandished a gun at some Japanese journalists, although it turned out to be a replica. In Beijing, thousands of protestors have been destroying Japanese businesses, wrecking Japanese cars and throwing rocks at the embassy. A big part of the issue are Japanese history textbooks which China and South Korea say gloss over the crimes of the Japanese military during World War II. I watched an interesting news report on the textbook issues which compared the eight history texts approved for use by the Ministry of Education, and explained the problem areas of each — in general, only 2-3 pages were devoted to the issue of war crimes in each book. Chinese textbooks go to the other extreme, with half the content of one book shown devoted to the Sino-Japanese war, illustrated with many inflammatory pictures of corpses and emotional statements that have no place in the study of history. The Japanese textbook that caused the most anger is used in only 18 schools here and has been denounced by many Japanese educators, but this hasn’t swayed the demonstrators. One theory about the current crisis put forth on Japanese TV is that after the Tiananmen Square uprisings, China increased “loyalty education” for children in schools, much of which focused on Japan as a national enemy. The generation that was in school in 1989 are now in their 20s, and they’re the ones who are out demonstrating now.
The issue is a very difficult one to resolve. Although Japan has officially apologized to China seventeen times since 1974, it has mostly failed to show real reflection about the terrible things it did in the 1930s. Japanese are sometimes willing to say “that was a long time ago” about China and Korea, but never about Hiroshima. On the other hand, I’ve had American friends who dismissed American atrocities in Vietnam with the same argument, so maybe all of us are capable of a similar reaction under the right circumstances. Another problem that comes up often is the role of Yasukuni, a shrine for the remembrance of Japanese soldiers killed during the war, which wouldn’t be a problem except that the Japanese military leaders most responsible for the war are also interred in graves on the shrine’s grounds. In Washington D.C. there are many places where Americans can go and reflect on their own country’s past, like Arlington National Cemetery or the Iwo Jima monument, but Japan has only Yasukuni to fill all of these roles. Maybe one solution would be the creation of a “secular” monument to honor Japan’s soldiers without bruising the feelings of neighboring countries?