Japan and Korea thumb a poisoned ledger
By Peter J Brown
In the summer of 2007, 34 Japanese and Korean scholars were selected to
participate in the second round of the Japan-South Korea joint history project.
Since the release of their report in late March, it is becoming clear that very
little progress has been made - many of the same issues from the first round of
this project which commenced in 2001 remain unresolved. The first round report
was issued in 2005.
Professor Cho Kwang of Korea University, and Professor Yasushi Toriumi
(emeritus) at the University of Tokyo are serving as the co-chairmen of this
joint history project.
In 2001, the first round commenced following a very heated row between the two
countries over a Japanese history textbook. In 2009, the release of another
history textbook in Japan - this time intended for Japanese junior high readers
- again poisoned the
atmosphere because it contained what many Koreans considered to be false and
Frederick Dickinson, an associate professor of history at the University of
Pennsylvania, wrote in 2007 that, "the cluster of history textbooks approved by
the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in the spring of 2005 was
clearly more conservative than those given the green light in the previous
round of evaluations in 2001. And the continuing official refusal to
countenance appeals for legal restitution for wartime acts, whether it be to
Chinese victims of biological warfare, to former 'comfort women' or to ex-POWs
[prisoners of war] impressed into slave labor, are obvious setbacks for
history, as well as for the plaintiffs." 
In 2010, this troubling approval process continues unabated, and is perhaps
even gaining momentum. It simply increases tension and undermines the joint
"Yes, conservative trends in approved Japanese textbooks continue. One could
note, for example, that while currently there are three social studies
textbooks for elementary school use that clearly identify the disputed islands,
Takeshima [Dokdo in Korean], as Japanese territory, among the batch of 280
elementary school textbooks recently approved for use from the 2011 academic
year, five social studies texts do so," said Dickinson. "One could also point
to the large number of references to Japanese traditional culture and to moral
lessons in this batch of approved texts, even in science volumes, which are not
the typical outlet for such lessons."
Koreans find this sort of textbook-related activity distasteful, and it along
with the unwelcome and lingering presence of the organizations such as the
Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, or Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho wo
Tsukuru Kai, cannot be taken for granted or overlooked by the Japanese. The
society is deemed a repeat offender by Seoul as its agenda includes keeping
alive the notion that Japan liberated Asia via the Daitowa Senso or "The
Greater East Asian War" - Japan's name for the Pacific Theater of World War II
- and pushing a revisionist ideology on Japanese society as a whole.
Koga Kei, a 2009-2010 Vasey Fellow from Japan at the Pacific Forum CSIS in
Honolulu and a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Fletcher School
of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, for example,
described the history textbook debate in the following way.
"After all, Japan emphasizes the diversity of the historical interpretation.
There are many history textbooks in Japan and most of schools are not using
those which become controversial, while South Korea cannot accept it even in a
democratic society," said Koga. "Koreans see the Atarashii Rekishi wo Tsukuru
Kai as evidence of Japan's unwillingness to change its historiography."
"Historiography" is not a term which one sees very often, and it is defined in
the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:
1 a : the writing of history; especially : the writing of history based
on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the
authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that
will stand the test of critical methods b : the principles, theory, and history
of historical writing a course in historiography 2 : the product of historical
writing : a body of historical literature
The historical status
quo - or established historiography - in Japan today is like an iceberg which
melts very slowly and keeps much of its mass concealed beneath the surface.
If such quick action can be taken to discard the old political rules that
applied for so long in Japan, leading to the swift removal of the Liberal
Democratic Party from its entrenched position in Tokyo, why does the attempt to
resolve these key historical disagreements involving countries which Japan once
occupied still inch along and leave such a bitter taste?
Koga sees this joint history project as an often difficult yet worthwhile
undertaking which is likely to be fruitful. And yet he agrees that Japan's
recent political transformation has happened much faster than any attempt to
rewrite Japanese history so as to somehow completely satisfy the Koreans.
Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada recently spoke about how history can
accommodate a "variety of views." On the other hand, it is hard to accept the
conclusions reached by a certain Japanese scholar who is participating in this
process when he criticized South Korea's "anti-Japanese" attitudes, and the
impact of "South Korean public opinion" on the stance adopted by South Korean
scholars as if these same South Korean scholars have a questionable agenda and
are not trying to be objective. He is not alone in his thinking. 
Koga wonders whether "conclusions" is the right word.
"This Japanese scholar seemed to be more concerned about the attitude he
perceived from South Korean scholars in the meetings," said Koga. "I had the
same feelings when we discussed about the issue with several Korean students,
and their attitude was sometimes like - 'We are right on everything, and you
are wrong on everything.' Having said that, it is also true that several Korean
students and most professors had more balanced views and it was very
interesting to discuss this topic with them, so I am not sure whether the
Japanese scholar was too sensitive to that issue or the Korean scholars
actually demonstrated that kind of attitude."
As Japan vigorously attempts to remind its neighbors that Japan has already
made a full confession and that it has issued a formal apology - doing so
profusely and repeatedly for its flagrant transgressions - over at least the
past two decades, a strange outcome results as Japan's argument comes full
As Japan now attempts to score points by pointing to deficiencies in South
Korean history textbooks, it does so while Japan's representations of history
continue. Placing the blame on others in order to make it seem as if Japan is
the offended or disadvantaged party in this case is certainly an unusual twist.
"There might be a subtle demarcation between 'historical fact' and 'historical
attitude' in the collective Japanese psyche. In terms of 'historical fact,'
Japanese aggression during World War II triggered the liberation of Asia from
colonization. In terms of 'historical attitude,' Japan actually hurt Asian
people psychologically as well as physically. For some Japanese, they are not
mutually exclusive," said Koga. "However, these differences are so subtle, so
that they are easily mixed up and politically utilized. Also, at the same time,
there are some Japanese who also think that, 'we Japanese are right on
everything, and you South Koreans are wrong on everything'. "
According to Koga, any attempts to shift the blame onto others - complaining
about Korean history textbooks in this instance, albeit only on rare occasions
in order to make it seem as if Japan is the offended or disadvantaged party in
this case, might be the Japanese way of signaling their profound sense of
insecurity about what might lie ahead as far as any fundamental reconciling of
history is concerned.
"There is the very strong possibility that the Japanese would fear that once
they accept South Korean views, they might have to make concessions all the way
down," said Koga. "However, this is a good effort for both Japanese and South
Korean experts to get together to consider 'objectively' about the history
despite the possibility that these sessions may not be as productive as the
participants want them to be."
Regarding the need for South Korea, China and Japan to create and publish a
common history textbook, Foreign Minister Okada has already endorsed the
concept. However, last year, Okada tied the future publication of this textbook
to the completion of the joint history projects. 
Although Japan had never previously expressed its approval for such a textbook,
let alone even officially mentioned it, the Japanese must realize that it is
quite likely that astronauts from Japan or some other Asian country will be
walking on the moon before this textbook appears.
The US could play a more active role here, according to Professor Mike
Mochizuki of George Washington University. However, there are reasons why the
US must proceed slowly. For one thing, the US and Japan "have still not
achieved reconciliation on historical issues," and, reciprocal visits by US and
Japanese acting heads of state to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima have not happened
"If Americans, officially or unofficially, are to play a constructive role in
facilitating a positive dialogue about history between Japanese and Chinese and
between Japanese and Koreans, then perhaps Japanese and Americans must also
address their own issues of history," Mochizuki told an audience last year at
the Northeast Asian History Foundation in Seoul.
Mochizuki described the process which seeks to forge an historical agreement
between nations as "both illusory and undesirable". He identified a more
realistic objective as the establishment of both a "narrative equilibrium
between former adversaries," and "a significant regional web of institutions
and foundations". He identified Korea's Northeast Asia History Foundation as a
good example of such an institution. 
But there can be no talk of equilibrium so long as Japan continues to get into
trouble for actively disseminating historical accounts to its students which
are masking the truth about its aggressive actions involving other nations, and
reflecting a cultural bias in the process.
The situation is exacerbated by the many ongoing territorial disputes to which
Japan is a party. This concerns islands such as Dokdo or Takeshima, Tsushima or
Daemado and Senkaku or Diaoyutai, to name just a few.
In fact, Dokdo/Takeshima was generating headlines again in April as Japan
renewed its territorial claim. Seoul was instantly upset.
"The incident came as many people from Korea and Japan are preparing to open a
century of peace and friendship, marking the 100th anniversary of Japan's
colonization of Korea in 1910," said South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs
and Trade spokesman Kim Young-sun. "We want to make it clear again that Japan's
move to ignore our sovereignty over Dokdo is not acceptable and will have
serious consequences." 
"Both countries have different incentives for wanting to claim the territory.
Whereas Japan wants them to fish, South Korea sees the islands as a symbolic
'extension' of Japan's earlier colonization of Korea, and in the future, the
issue might shift to energy resources," said Koga.
Last year, Mochizuki spoke of the "memory wars" that stemmed from former
Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's frequent visits to the Yasukuni
shrine for Japanese war heroes.
"Koreans perceive the Yasukuni shrine to be an egregious symbol of Japanese
imperialism, and the Japanese prime minister's visits to the shrine have fueled
angry South Korean protests," said Koga.
"Koizumi's successors have refrained from visiting Yasukuni; and the
governments of Japan, South Korea, and China have resumed regular summits and
avoided inflaming conflicts about history. This ceasefire in the 'memory wars'
provides an opportunity to work at constructing in a less politically charged
atmosphere," Mochizuki said.
Completion of this work is not likely to happen soon because of the sharp
differences that divide the two parties at the table. The shrine, the islands
and the textbooks conspire to thwart any possible breakthrough.
Dickinson describes the current mood of the Japan-South Korea joint history
project as "bleak". According to one Japanese participant, he said, "we've
reached the limit of joint research."
"Japanese participants complain that Korean texts simply portray the Japanese
as evil and make no mention of Japan's peace constitution or numerous formal
apologies already made by Japanese prime ministers and the emperor regarding
the colonial past," said Dickinson. "Korean participants, for their part, point
to weak or no mention in Japanese textbooks of wartime atrocities as clear
evidence of a lack of Japanese remorse. Japanese scholars also lament that
Korean scholars continue to respond to Japanese appeals for 'multiple
historical perspectives' with interrogations concerning Japanese war
Unfortunately, according to Koga, both Japan and South Korea maintain the same
stance in these discussions.
"The South Korean attitude is not constructive because it does not delineate
clear compromises that Japan can realistically make to resolve these issues and
fully meet Korean demands," said Koga. "On the other hand, Japan mainly regards
the issues that need to be resolved here as legal and political, and it fears
the extent to which it needs to engage in compromise.
In addition, Japan is very concerned that the longstanding 1965 Treaty on Basic
Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea may be adversely impacted in
"In effect, Japan might even see this process as placing the 1965 Treaty in
jeopardy. Although the joint history research group did not specifically
address the impact of their work on the Treaty, there is little doubt that this
could emerge quite suddenly at any time as a formidable obstacle," said Koga.