Sunday, April 10, 2005

An Unwillingness to 'Fess Up


It used to be that only China's government got upset when Japan would release another school textbook downplaying Imperial Japan's aggression before and during World War II. And it still does, judging by this story in the People's Daily Online. Nowadays, though, Japan is starting to hear it from the average Chinese on the street.

It seems elements in the Japanese government like portraying the country as a victim of Western imperialism during World War II (which might make sense if Japan hadn't made some free-wheeling forays into Korea, Manchuria and elsewhere on the Chinese mainland before the war even started). This whitewashing of Japanese responsibility is highly visible in the textbooks that Japan's schoolchildren read, and are an endless source of outrage for countries that Japan occupied in the 20th century, particularly the People's Republic of China.

Lately, though, Chinese crowds have been getting into the anti-Japanese action, and it's the government in Beijing that's calling for cooler heads to prevail.

Crowds marched in Beijing Friday and in Guangdong province Saturday, shouting slogans, pelting Japanese diplomatic turf with bottles and eggs, and generally engaging in the sort of hooliganism that, back in the day, would wind participants up in a labor camp for a few years of reeducation and healthy outdoor living.

Even though Chinese riot police seem to be protecting Japanese dips and installations from real harm, Japan has lodged a formal protest about the Beijing incident and is asking for compensation. As it should; but the Japanese government will one day have to take a page from Bill Clinton and simply apologize for what it did wrong.

Suspicion that the Japanese aren't really sorry for stomping around Asia in the '30s and '40s—and that they retain the arrogance that drove such actions—is a major impediment to Japan's soft power at a time when it would like regional military partners besides the U.S., an expansion of its lagging trade, and a seat on a hypothetically expanded United Nations Security Council.

For now, I suspect Beijing is letting rowdy Chinese crowds signal that it's time to say, "Sorry."

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