South Korea

History book a chance to set the record straight

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2005, 12:00am


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History has always been subjective, especially when the ideological standpoints of those recounting events are involved. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the textbooks of China, South Korea and Japan.

At issue has been how Japan's colonisation and occupation of its neighbours between 1910 and 1945 should be viewed. While Chinese and South Korean students are taught from books telling of violent incidents and barbaric acts committed by the Japanese, their counterparts in Japan read of the heroic acts of soldiers and how the nations occupied benefited.

The more nationalist the author, the more likely the book will gloss over contentious issues and highlight past glories; such is the way of historians.

Such circumstances led in April to an outcry in China and South Korea about the publication of several new Japanese textbooks, which were condemned as 'whitewashing' historical events. One referred to the massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing as an 'incident' and termed islands disputed by South Korea as being illegally occupied.

It was not the first time there had been outrage over Japanese history books, but with the mainland's growing confidence because of its rising economic might, agitation for resolution of thorny issues was inevitable. Violent, anti-Japanese protests broke out, straining relations already suffering from a series of disputes.

Behind the scenes, a combined team of Chinese, South Korean and Japanese historians had been working on a mission to right what they perceived to be wrongs. Their landmark version of the contentious period of history was published yesterday in the three countries.

There are no 'incidents' in the book. Japanese students will be able to read about what happened at Nanjing and how troops from their country killed between 240,000 and 350,000 people. They will learn that Asian women were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers and that many Koreans died at the hands of their occupiers. Japanese aggression during the invasion of Asian countries in the second world war will be on clear display.

The 40 historians involved were not acting on behalf of their governments. There is no certainty that their book will gain a wide audience, especially in Japan, where it is most needed.

But their exercise is a lesson to their leaders and the people of their nations. By reaching consensus on issues where for 60 years none has been attainable, they have made a valuable achievement.

History is at the heart of tension between China, South Korea and Japan. Until all can agree on what occurred and the language used to describe those events, disputes will continue.

The new book does just that - affording governments the chance to embrace it as a model to move forward on other issues dividing Northeast Asia.