China and Japan must deal with wartime history and move on

Peter Kammerer says that without an honest reflection of the past, Japan and China cannot put their old animosities to rest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 7:12am

For an instructive lesson in national education, look no further than the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. The nations established diplomatic relations 40 years ago and signed a peace and friendship treaty in 1978, promising to lay animosities to rest. Protests and online forums in support of government rhetoric and decisions over the rocky outcrops show that there has been little adherence to what was agreed to. The biased history of school textbooks makes plain why some people feel the way they do.

Under the 1972 deal, China renounced demands for war reparations. Both nations agreed to forge ties "on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity" and "settle all disputes by peaceful means". Nationalism has made the sentiments worthless.

On the Chinese side, the hatred towards Japan is vitriolic, with words like "animal", "pig" and "garbage" often being used by protesters. There is largely restraint among Japanese, with demonstrations being focused on defending territory and, at worst, referring to China as "a thief". Such views are not held by the majority, but that they exist and are not being rejected by governments reveals how far from the terms of the pacts the countries have strayed. Given that neither has created trust through educating their populations with balanced accounts of the recent past, it is hardly surprising.

The Chinese Communist Party has gone out of its way to build nationalistic unity by ensuring history books and the media direct hatred towards Japan for atrocities during 14 years of occupation to 1945. Accounts are graphic and supported by horrific images; that leads to hatred. Japan, the accounts make plain, has not apologised for the brutality that resulted in tens of millions of deaths, nor has it given compensation to the victims and their relatives. The result is that younger generations hate Japanese more than those who suffered through the war.

Japanese governments have been no less untrue to their pledge. China and the Koreas have long criticised Japan for whitewashing history by producing books that ignore wrongdoing. The pressure has been responded to, with texts now mentioning abuse against neighbours, but specifics and details are still lacking. With political leaders having turned to nationalism to buoy support, the Diaoyu Islands, historically little understood by most Japanese, is a perfect issue to capitalise on.

Stripping away bias and nationalism is the only way to begin afresh. Germany is the best example, with its model of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past. Famously symbolised by West German chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before war victims in Poland in 1970, it involved honestly admitting wrongs, genuine atonement and moving constructively forward. For Japan, that means sincere apologies and officially paid compensation. But importantly, Tokyo and Beijing have to ensure that what is taught in schools is balanced and free of nationalistic emotion. For Asia, as with Germany after the fall of Nazism, that will require multilateral commissions of neighbours to set standards on how history is to be reflected.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post