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Ending East Asia’s History Wars

TOKYO – Georges Clemenceau, who, as France’s prime minister, led his country to victory in World War I, famously said that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” Japan is now discovering that history is too important to be left to newspaper editors.

In the 1990s, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun caused a firestorm at home and in South Korea by publishing a series of articles, based upon testimony by the former Japanese soldier Seiji Yoshida, on “comfort women” – Koreans forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Asahi has now admitted that the soldier’s confessions were unfounded, and has disavowed the core supporting evidence for the articles.

That retraction appears to be causing as much embarrassment – and diplomatic vitriol – in Japan and South Korea today as the original series did. But, at a time when both countries cannot afford to permit partisan or sloppy abuses of history to roil their bilateral relations, Asahi’s careless work has turned out to be more than abysmal journalism; it has introduced a dangerous element into regional diplomacy.

Some say that Japan and South Korea should follow the example set by France and Germany. Reconciling in the first two decades following the Nazi Occupation of France, these countries’ leaders understood that their security and economic ties were far too important to their citizens’ wellbeing to allow the old hatreds to fester. They knew that the unimaginable violence of WWII was a direct result of the antagonisms that had festered since the Napoleonic Wars and that were allowed to persist after 1918.