Yasukuni Shrine

The great divider

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2005, 12:00am

Anniversaries are occasions for recalling and reassessing past events and making resolutions for the future. Each New Year, for example, resolutions are made - often to be broken, but at least there is reflection on what we have done and how these actions have affected others.

Thus, in 2000, US president Bill Clinton chose the dawning of a new millennium to apologise to black Americans for the institution of slavery. And Pope John Paul II apologised for the misdeeds of the Catholic Church over the previous 2,000 years.

China is marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in a triumphal mood, claiming the Communist Party brought about Japan's defeat. It is spending US$50 million to renovate a memorial hall in honour of the victims who died during the Rape of Nanking in 1937, when Japanese soldiers killed between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians.

The 60th anniversary is being marked in Japan in a somewhat different way. While the Chinese are keeping alive the memory of Japanese atrocities, Tokyo is removing such information from history textbooks and generally playing down the deeds.

Japan's House of Representatives last week adopted a resolution that expressed 'deep regret' over the suffering caused to the people of various Asian countries. Significantly, however, it dropped the terms 'colonial rule' and 'aggressive war' which were used 10 years ago to mark the 50th anniversary, when a more forthright resolution was adopted.

Reflecting the mood of Japanese politicians, the latest resolution - passed by a large majority of the Diet - urged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on Monday to mark the end of the war. Such a move will be considered profoundly insulting by China and South Korea, since the shrine honours class-A war criminals.

The Chinese see themselves, understandably, as victims in the war. Interestingly however, the Japanese are increasingly depicting themselves as victims also. This is reflected in their commemorations.

Earlier this year, Japan commemorated the anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, which not only razed the city but killed about 100,000 people. A few days ago, it remembered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. And this year, for the first time, Tokyo is holding an overseas exhibition - in Chicago - about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But while the government and parliament are playing down the brutal aspects of Japanese actions, civil society is keeping memories alive. This month, a museum on sexual slavery during the war opened in Tokyo.

Recently, Nariaki Nakayama, the minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, infuriated Chinese as well as Koreans when he reportedly said women forced to work as sex slaves should 'be proud of being comfort women'.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: '[Tokyo] should face up to history with an honest attitude, make deep reflection and properly handle the issues left over by history, including the issue of 'comfort women'.'

This anniversary, it seems, sees China and Japan further apart on the question of history than they have been since the establishment of diplomatic ties more than 30 years ago. And there is little likelihood the gap will be closed soon.

This is a great pity because Sino-Japanese animosity will impede the economic integration of East Asia, something the region needs, now that the US has formed the Central American Free-Trade Agreement and the North American Free-Trade Agreement, and the European Union has expanded to include 25 countries. If East Asia does not work together, it will not be able to compete.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator