Overcoming a historical divide

With the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific coming in  a couple of weeks, diplomatic tensions between Japan and its Asian neighbors are bound to flare up again.  Under increasing pressure from voters to improve relations with China and South Korea, two countries that bore the brunt of Japan's wartime brutality, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is desperately searching for way to show respect to the 2.5 million soldiers who gave their lives and maintain a working relationship with leaders across Asia.   

As an American who has taught young people in both China and Japan and listened to my grandfather talk numerous times about his experiences as solider near Tokyo during the Allied Occupation in the late 1940's, I have intently followed this growing debate and becoming increasing pessimistic that people in these two great countries can overcome their historical mistrust of each other. 

Starting in August 2001, Koizumi's annual visits to the controversial Shinto—based Yasukuni Shrine near Tokyo, which served as a spiritual pillar for Japanese nationalism during the 1930s and 1940s and now honors 14 Class—A war criminals along with the war dead, has drawn intense criticism from both home and abroad.  An increasing number of Japanese now believe the prime minister should stay away from Yasukuni this summer.

With a strong sense of nationalistic victimhood, nearly all Chinese believe the visits by a prime minister indicate Japan has not seriously searched its soul over its war responsibility. In April, thousands of angry young Chinese took to the streets in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen to protest Japan's inability to 'sincerely' apologize for its wartime aggression.  When told about Prime Minister Koizumi's apology in Indonesia in early May, many of my Chinese students just reply that it is too little and too late. 

Seeking a way out of this impasse, many Japanese support the concept of building a new national memorial for the war dead.  But despite growing attention for the proposal, originating in December 2002, it is unlikely the idea would put an end to Tokyo's diplomatic woes even if it were to be adopted, largely because Koizumi appears determined to continue his contentious visits.

One of Koizumi's key constituents is the Japan War—Bereaved Families Association, one of the strongest pressure groups in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and the main supporter of Yasukuni Shrine. The group strongly opposes construction of a new war memorial because it could replace the shrine as the spiritual bastion for patriotism in Japan.

Responding to this concern, Koizumi has repeatedly stressed that a new national memorial hall "would not replace" Yasukuni and that the construction of the new memorial hall would not prevent future prime ministers from visiting, arguing the government cannot prohibit them from going because, he claimed, such visits are "private" in the first place.

At the same time, Koizumi is also feeling heat from business groups that have billions of dollars of investment across the region.  With the economy in held back by slow domestic consumption, leading Japanese firms are increasingly dependant on manufacturing in China and expanding their share in its booming market.  During the April protests, many upset Chinese were advocating a boycott of Japanese—made products.

Even worse, Toyota has reportedly had difficulty recruiting new workers in China because more Chinese have come to believe that they will not be treated fairly by Japanese managers and given the promotions and training they deserve.  Surveys show that Chinese university graduates would much rather work for an American or European company. 

Many experts say that Sino—Japan relations are at an all—time low since diplomatic ties were forged in 1972.  Both governments are being guided by domestic political pressure, to the harm of Asian region and the global economy.  What are the long—term consequences of all the distrust and hatred shown in the protests by thousands of Chinese?  No one really knows for sure.  And can stronger economic ties help repair relations and help restore trust? 

Only time will tell. 

With the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific coming in  a couple of weeks, diplomatic tensions between Japan and its Asian neighbors are bound to flare up again.  Under increasing pressure from voters to improve relations with China and South Korea, two countries that bore the brunt of Japan's wartime brutality, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is desperately searching for way to show respect to the 2.5 million soldiers who gave their lives and maintain a working relationship with leaders across Asia.   

As an American who has taught young people in both China and Japan and listened to my grandfather talk numerous times about his experiences as solider near Tokyo during the Allied Occupation in the late 1940's, I have intently followed this growing debate and becoming increasing pessimistic that people in these two great countries can overcome their historical mistrust of each other. 

Starting in August 2001, Koizumi's annual visits to the controversial Shinto—based Yasukuni Shrine near Tokyo, which served as a spiritual pillar for Japanese nationalism during the 1930s and 1940s and now honors 14 Class—A war criminals along with the war dead, has drawn intense criticism from both home and abroad.  An increasing number of Japanese now believe the prime minister should stay away from Yasukuni this summer.

With a strong sense of nationalistic victimhood, nearly all Chinese believe the visits by a prime minister indicate Japan has not seriously searched its soul over its war responsibility. In April, thousands of angry young Chinese took to the streets in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen to protest Japan's inability to 'sincerely' apologize for its wartime aggression.  When told about Prime Minister Koizumi's apology in Indonesia in early May, many of my Chinese students just reply that it is too little and too late. 

Seeking a way out of this impasse, many Japanese support the concept of building a new national memorial for the war dead.  But despite growing attention for the proposal, originating in December 2002, it is unlikely the idea would put an end to Tokyo's diplomatic woes even if it were to be adopted, largely because Koizumi appears determined to continue his contentious visits.

One of Koizumi's key constituents is the Japan War—Bereaved Families Association, one of the strongest pressure groups in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and the main supporter of Yasukuni Shrine. The group strongly opposes construction of a new war memorial because it could replace the shrine as the spiritual bastion for patriotism in Japan.

Responding to this concern, Koizumi has repeatedly stressed that a new national memorial hall "would not replace" Yasukuni and that the construction of the new memorial hall would not prevent future prime ministers from visiting, arguing the government cannot prohibit them from going because, he claimed, such visits are "private" in the first place.

At the same time, Koizumi is also feeling heat from business groups that have billions of dollars of investment across the region.  With the economy in held back by slow domestic consumption, leading Japanese firms are increasingly dependant on manufacturing in China and expanding their share in its booming market.  During the April protests, many upset Chinese were advocating a boycott of Japanese—made products.

Even worse, Toyota has reportedly had difficulty recruiting new workers in China because more Chinese have come to believe that they will not be treated fairly by Japanese managers and given the promotions and training they deserve.  Surveys show that Chinese university graduates would much rather work for an American or European company. 

Many experts say that Sino—Japan relations are at an all—time low since diplomatic ties were forged in 1972.  Both governments are being guided by domestic political pressure, to the harm of Asian region and the global economy.  What are the long—term consequences of all the distrust and hatred shown in the protests by thousands of Chinese?  No one really knows for sure.  And can stronger economic ties help repair relations and help restore trust? 

Only time will tell.