Monday, April 21, 2014
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East Asia’s Nationalist Fantasy Islands

TOKYO – They don’t look like much, those few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea between Okinawa and Taiwan, and a couple of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan, inhabited by a few token fishermen and some South Korean Coast Guard officials. The former, called the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and the Diaoyu Islands in China, are claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan; the latter, called Takeshima in Japan, and Dokdo in Korea, are claimed by South Korea and Japan.

These tiny outcroppings have little material value, and yet the dispute over their ownership has led to a major international dustup. Ambassadors have been recalled. Massive anti-Japanese demonstrations have been held all over China, causing damage to Japanese people and properties. Threats fly back and forth between Tokyo and Seoul. There has even been talk of military action.

The historical facts actually appear quite simple. Japan grabbed the islands as part of its empire-building project after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and the annexation of Korea in 1905. Prior sovereignty is unclear; there were fishermen from Japan in Takeshima/Dokdo, and some awareness of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in imperial China. But no formal claims were made by any state.

Things became more complicated after World War II. Japan was supposed to return its colonial possessions, but the United States took over the Senkaku Islands along with Okinawa, before returning both to Japan in 1972. The Koreans, still enraged at Japan for almost a half-century of colonization, took the Dokdo islands without worrying about the move’s legality.

Given the brutality of the Japanese occupations of Korea and China, one is naturally inclined to sympathize with Japan’s former victims. The fiery emotions inspired by this dispute – some Koreans even mutilated themselves in protest against Japan – suggest that the wounds of the Japanese war in Asia are still fresh. Indeed, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has used the occasion to demand a formal apology for the war from the Japanese emperor, and financial compensation for Korean women who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels during the war.

Unfortunately, the Japanese government, despite much circumstantial and even documentary evidence supplied by Japanese historians, now chooses to deny the wartime regime’s responsibility for this ghastly project. Not surprisingly, that stance has further inflamed Korean emotions.

And yet it would be too simple to ascribe the current dispute entirely to the open wounds of the last world war. Nationalist feelings, deliberately stirred up in China, Korea, and Japan, are linked to recent history, to be sure, but the politics behind them is different in each country. Since the press in all three countries is almost autistic in its refusal to reflect anything but the “national” point of view, these politics are never properly explained.

The Communist government in China can no longer derive any legitimacy from Marxist, let alone Maoist, ideology. China is an authoritarian capitalist country, open for business with other capitalist countries (including deep economic relations with Japan). Since the 1990’s, therefore, nationalism has replaced Communism as the justification for the one-party state, which requires stirring up anti-Western – above all, anti-Japanese – sentiment. This is never difficult in China, given the painful past, and it usefully deflects public attention from the failings and frustrations of living in a dictatorship.

In South Korea, one of the most painful legacies of the Japanese colonial period stems from the Korean elite’s widespread collaboration at the time. Their offspring still play an important part in conservative politics in the country, which is why Korean leftists periodically call for purges and retribution. President Lee is a conservative, and relatively pro-Japanese. As a result, the Japanese view his recent demands for apologies, money, and recognition of Korean sovereignty over the islands in the Sea of Japan as a kind of betrayal. But, precisely because Lee is regarded as a pro-Japanese conservative, he needs to burnish his nationalist credentials. He cannot afford to be tainted with collaboration. His political opponents are not the Japanese, but the Korean left.

The use of the war to stoke anti-Japanese feelings in China and Korea is annoying to the Japanese, and triggers defensive reactions. But Japanese nationalism is also fed by anxieties and frustrations – specifically, fear of rising Chinese power and Japan’s total dependency on the US for its national security.

Japanese conservatives view their country’s post-war pacifist constitution, written by Americans in 1946, as a humiliating assault on Japanese sovereignty. Now that China is testing its growing power by claiming territories, not just in the East China Sea, but also in the South China Sea, Japanese nationalists insist that Japan must act as a big power, and be seen as a serious player, fully prepared to defend its sovereignty, even over a few insignificant rocks.

China, Korea, and Japan, whose economic interests are closely entwined, have every reason to avoid a serious conflict. And yet all three are doing their best to bring one about. For entirely domestic reasons, each country is manipulating the history of a devastating war, triggering passions that can only cause more damage.

Politicians, commentators, activists, and journalists in each country are talking endlessly about the past. But they are manipulating memories for political ends. The last thing that interests any of them is the truth.

Read more from our "Japan's Turning Point" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    There are a number of mistakes in this such as "the annexation of Korea in 1905," "no formal claims were made by any state," "Korean women who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels during the war" and "much circumstantial and even documentary evidence supplied by Japanese historians." I do not intend to correct all of them not to make this comment long. But just a few words to help understand the animosty between China and Japan and between Korea and Japan.

    In both China and Korea, to love one's country is to disdain and disparage Japan and vice versa. This is not due to the lack or shortage remorsefulness of the Japanese as is claimed by Chinese and Koreans but due to the Chinese and Korean cultural DNA which was brewed and condensed in their history. There is a simple fact that Japan introduced a lot of things directly from China or through the Korean peninsula.

    The historical idea of the Chinese tributary system may be helpful. In this system China was at the center and neighboring countries at the periferies. Neighbors, morally inferior, were supposed to pay homage to the center, morally superior. The closer to the center, the morally higher status a neighbour was accorded; the more distant from it, the morally lower status. This moral hierarchy was the traditional Chinese security policy.

    China and Korea were Confucian nations. (I understand Vietnam was a Confucian country.) This hierachical mentality lies deep in both the conscious and the subconscious of the Chinese and the Koreans, accustoming them to looking down on the Japanese.

    This moral contest for moral excellence was not at all moralistic; it was the essential and integral part of power politics.

    One great drawback with this was that policies were not judged on their own merits; it made politics harsher than need be, since a line was not drawn between policies and morals. (Substitute religion for morals and people of the Christian world would get it.) Had it not been for the two Sino-Japanese Wars, the Japanese annexation of Korea, or the rocky isles, there would be the bickerings that we see today. They would have found one cause or another.

    As perhaps people know well about China but little about Korea, I will put down a few words about the latter. The Korean penisula had almost always been exposed to Chinese pressure (from which fate Japan had been saved by a sea, a reason why Japan did not fall victim to Confucianism and a reason why Japan was disparaged,) Korea, already Sinicized more or less, finally adopted as its orthodoxy the Chu Hsi (Zhu Zi) version of Confucianism.

    Chu Hsi's philosophy was a metaphysics or a metaphysical ideology concerned with legitimacy, almost completely divorce from reality. It had dismal effects on Korean, barring objective observation of facts, narrowing intellectual thinking, inhibiting practical skills and substituting for these narrow mindness and emotional indignation at anything at hand.

    I am ashamed to have already made this comment long, but a few more words about Korean modernization, the Senkaku or Diaoyu Isles and comfort women.

    First about Korean modernization: Korea was in a hopeless situation. I do not intend to justify the imperialism of Japan, but it built in Korea railways, roads, bridges, factories and educatinal systems. "the best colonial master of all time has been Japan, for no ex-colonies have done so well as (South) Korea and Taiwan (Daivid S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations)." North Korea, superior in power, invaded the South in June, 1950, owing to the industry implanted and left intact by the Japanese. Incidentally, China late came into the arena thaks to the industry of Manchuria, industrially most developed part, which was the legacy of Japanese imperialism.

    About the rocky isles: The People's Daily introduced them, in its January 8, 1953, editorial, as belonging to Ryukyu (Okinawa). Premier Zhou Enlai said to the chaiman of a Japanese political party (the Komei Party) in July, 1972, in Beijing that Chinese historian came to know that there were billions of barrels of oil under the sea and began to claim them. For a little more information on this, read my comment to www.yaleglobal.yale. edu/Can China Afford to Confront the World?-Part One.

    About the Koren comfort women: Both Japanese historians -most of them are lefts- and Koreans are capitalizing on a fake story made up by a Japanese ex-serviceman. Please read my reply to Jens Kolhammar's comment just below.

    1. CommentedJoel Thibault

      Yoshimichi is exaggerating the technology input from Japan. Many things are coming from american or european partnerships. Korean nuclear plants and the fast trains are based on french technologies. I understand you can feel frustrated by the fact that Korean companies such as Samsung are now more advanced and powerful then the japanese ones but this doesn't mean you have to manipulate the past.

      Japanese advance in the XIX and the XX is just a very very tiny interlude in history. Korea was more developed than Japan for 5,000 years and they are taking their place back. We already see them more advance in the development of the society. The relationship between men and women in Japan remains profoundly archaic. Most of the Japanese women are still housewives or can’t expect something better than a PA or secretary position. Korean will probably have a female president this year. A similar scenario in Japan is just pure science fiction. Young Korean women are a way more educated (more bachelor and master degree) than the Japanese ones and are occupying positions with more responsibilities. This matter is very important for a modern and healthy society. By visiting Japan, any foreigner will be shocked to see how the japanese men are treating women like meat.

    2. CommentedMatt Fisher

      Dear Yoshimichi Moriyama

      Your comment is outrageous and remind us how dangerous is japanese's collective amnesia. This is striking how you're manipulating memories like Ian Buruma just wrote.

      There is no positive aspects of the colonisation of Korea by Japanese. In education alone that was a disaster. They imposed their language while the Korean alphabet was a lot more convenient and more advanced than japanese writing.

      Also Japanese colonisation was far more harsher than the French or the British one. The cruelty of the Japanese army on civilians during WW2 is still very unknown by western historians. Until recently they've been focusing on Europe but some historians such as Andrew Roberts have been studying WW2 in asia and what the Japanese did is just shocking.
      Just one example. The population in Vietnam suffered more from the short Japanese occupation than during the independence or civil war!!

      The longer Japan wait and lie about its past, the darker its future is.

      Matt

    3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      I forgot to mention that in East Asia around 1965 the free world was confronted with the Soviet Union and China as elsewhere. The United States wanted to prop up the South and that the two counties would make it up. This marriage has been always on the brink of separation. Without the boss's presence and intercession the two would have divorced decades ago.

    4. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      Neither th Japanese governmetn nor the Japanese armed forces nor their agencies nor their agents kidnapped and foreced them to work as prostitutes or comfort women.

      All this started when in 1982 a Japanese, Seiji Yoshida, worte a story. He said he had abducted 205 Korean women in the Korean Island of Cheju dureing the war and sent to brothels. This story did not spread until one of the largest Japanese newspaper, Asahi, believed it and widely reported it.

      Yoshida served as a Japanese soldier and was a member of the Japan Communist Party in post-war Japan. He was asked later about details and confessed he had lied. Still later he said lies were necessary and added that was what newspapers and mass media were doing.

      A Korean newpaper person of the island looked into the matter and reported that no one of the island had seen or heard of Korean women kidnapped.

      Korea was industrialized mainly by Japan. At the time of North Korean invasion, the North was industrial and the South was agrarian. That was the reason the North was far more powerful than th South and decided to cross the 38 degree line. Kim Jon Ill must have thought he could make it.

      This was also one importan reason why the normalization treaty between South Korea and Japan was signed in 1965. A massive inflow of capital and techonology was needed to industrialize the South. This marirage, if it was a marriage at all, would have been impossible without the very strong enthusiasm of a go-between, the United States. Today the North is far inferior in economy but it is still abundant in natural resources of uranium, iron, rare metals and the like while the South is poor in these things. China is exploiting the North's natural abundance. There are, as I understand, people in the South who are worried about China's grab.

      To add, the internal politics of South Korea is violent. It undoubtedly comes, as Prof. Buruma wrote, from the dislike of the Japanese. But I presume it also comes from their fundamentalism of Chu Hsi's metaphysics. North and South Koreans show a very strong "incestuous" hatred. Why can't they get along at least as well as West and East Germans did?

    5. CommentedJoel Thibault

      Only hopeless extremists in Japan are still denying the comfort women. The end of your comment discredit yourself.

      " I do not intend to justify the imperialism of Japan, but it built in Korea railways, roads, bridges, factories and educatinal systems."

      South Korea was not industrialised by the Japanese. Everything was in the north and all the infrastructures you mentioned in south were destroyed during the Korean War.

  2. CommentedJens Kolhammar

    I agree with your conclusion, however, if you are interested in the truth perhaps you should add that in 1965, the Japanese government gave $364 million to the Korean government for all war damages this also included the harm done to comfort women. Also, in 1994, the Japanese government created an Asian Women's Fund for further compensation. Each receiver was given a signed apology from the then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, stating "As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women”.

    Of course Japan's war crimes were ghastly, just as Germany's, Russia's etc., but how can Japan respond to accusations that their apologies are not “sincere”. The main problem, as I understand it, is the fact that China and South Korea politics are using nationalism to further their own goals, which it turns fuels nationalism in Japan. As long as they cannot disconnect Japans war crimes from today’s Japan (which I would argue has happened in Europa with Germany) this will continue indefinitely.

    1. CommentedJoel Thibault

      "but how can Japan respond to accusations that their apologies are not “sincere”"

      Japanese government is still praising war criminals. That explains everything. Germans are not stupid enough to lay flowers on Nazi generals' tombs. Why are Japanese doing the equivalent?

      Also the apologises you mentioned were not official and just intended to open the Korean market.

    2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      As I understand, Japan did not pay $364million; it paid $800million, which was about twice as big as the national budget of South Korean. Japan had initially insisted to pay for the damages on individual basises but finally agreed to the Korean demand that it should pay to the Korean Governmet. There are reports that a considerable amount of this was pocketed.

      This agreement, which could be said to be part of a treaty which restored or established formal relations, depending on how you see it, was kept a secret to the Korean public. It became known only in 2005.

      "This also included the harm done to comfort women" is wrong if it was meant that Korean comfort women were abducted by the Japanese Government, the Japanese military, their agencie or their agents. The issue of comfort women in the above sense (of being abducted and forced to work as prostitutes by the above mentioned groups) did not crop up either in Japan nor in Korea until a Japanese, who once was a member of the Japan Communist Party, wrote a fake story in 1982; he said he had abducted many Korean women in the Korean Island of Cheju.

      The Asian Women's Fund was not set up by the Japanese Govenment; it was organized by civilians.

      Please read, if interested, www.foreignpolicy.com/Japanese Comfort-Women Deniers Force White House Response and the comment posted to it.

  3. CommentedKen Peterson

    Dr. Buruma,
    For what it's worth, I'm in complete agreement. After 10-15 years in the area, I've watched with alarm, the replacement of a delightful Cosmopolitan laissez-faire with a furious Nationalistic arrogance.

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