22.12.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Yet another revision of history in NEA

0532-05On several occasions NEO articles have pointed out the interconnectedness between present day politics in the North East Asia and the tragic aspects of the recent history in the relationship between the three main nations of the subregion, namely the Japanese, on the one hand, and the Chinese and also Koreans, on the other.

What prompted us to return to the aforementioned topic was two recent noteworthy events that stirred the memories of the Nanjing massacre and the ‘comfort women’ – the most harrowing episodes in history of all the three nations.

On December 13, Nanjing saw the opening of a new memorial to mark one of the most sombre events of the Sino-Japanese war that officially started with a so-called ‘incident by the Marco Polo Bridge’ in the vicinity of Beijing on the 7th of July 1937 (although similar “incidents” had been happening since the late 1920s).

At the end of the same year, according to certain witness accounts, in the course of the siege of the Chinese capital of that time Nanjing and during the following weeks, the city became the stage for the mass killing of prisoners of war and civilians and the mass rape of women.

The gist of today’s argument between Japan and China (that factors in the context of complex bilateral relations) regarding the nature of the event that took place 80 years ago, boils down to the question of its scale. The Japanese side argues that the event does not stand out from a succession of “normal side effects” of a siege of any big city by any army in the world.

Still, the ‘Nanjing massacre’ became one of the primary charges against the Japanese leaders that ended up in the dock of the Tokyo International Tribunal in 1946-1948. In particular, the court sentenced the former Japanese army chief in China, general Matsui Iwane, to death.

In the summer of 2015, China submitted a file to UNESCO (that runs the “Memory of the World” programme) containing materials that attest the unprecedented scale of the events in Nanjing.

In Japan, however, attention has been somewhat contently drawn to the fact that PRC President Xi Jinping did not make and appearance the public opening ceremony of the aforementioned memorial in Nanjing. Although he did attend such events in the previous years.

It should be noted that disagreements on the topic in question have persisted between historians to this day. A very interesting account on what has become known (especially after 1945) as the ‘Nanjing massacre’ as well as on the legal justification of the postwar trials can be found in the article by the Russian japanologist V.E. Molodyakov.

Whatever the case may be, the Chinese understanding of what happened 79 years ago in Nanjing forms the basis of Beijing’s demands that Tokyo apologise or at least openly affirm the so-called Murayama Statement of 1995 regarding the complex revision of the Japanese history of the first half of the last century. The Statement of the then Prime-Minister of Japan, Tomiichi Murayama, was general and did not touch upon the “specifics” of Tokyo’s colonial policy in North-East Asia or the country’s participation in the Second World War.

Meanwhile, this story contains another episode that causes uneasiness in the Republic of Korea (RK) to this day. From RK’s perspective, it involved the mass and illegal recruitment of young Korean women into brothels situated in locations of the Japanese army regiments’ deployment which started long before the war. Since the military chiefs preferred to call such places “comfort (or consolation) stations ”, their employees became to be known as “comfort women”.

In recent years, this problem has risen to a level of importance in the relations between RK and Japan comparable with that of the Nanjing massacre in the Sino-Japanese relations.

Up to the middle of last decade, Japan has adhered (more tacitly) to the main provisions of the so-called Yohei Kono Statement of 1993. The latter, who held the position of Chief Cabinet Secretary at the time, firstly, acknowledged the fact of the coercion of local women to work at “consolation stations” and, secondly, he officially made a public apology in this regard.

Yet, from the second half of the last decade a certain revisionism has taken ground in the position of Japanese officials with regard to the “issue of comfort women” (and the ‘Nanjing massacre’). Y. Kono and T. Murayama have been accused of “political expediency” and, in contrast, of the absence of documented evidence in their “statements” of twenty years ago.

As in the case with the ‘Nanjing massacre’, Tokyo fundamentally disagrees on the scale of what Seoul calls the “problem of comfort women”. Besides, they emphasise a lack of legally relevant proof of such a coercive process of recruitment of women for the brothels. Two years ago, the South Korean ‘social activists’ supporting the process of updating recent historical events received an unexpected blow. Here we refer to the book of the Seoul Sejong University professor Park Yu-ha entitled “Comfort Women of the Empire”, where the author questioned the validity of the basic propositions of this problem.

In response to the protest from the nine surviving former sexual slaves, it was judicially decided to remove 34 sections from the text of the book that strongly affected the claimants’ honour and dignity.

Moreover, in November 2015, professor Park herself was accused of “damaging reputation” by the Seoul public prosecution office, however she has not yet been arrested.

On November 26, a group of 54 prominent public figures, including T. Murayama, expressed their protest against the public prosecution’s pursuit of professor Park Yu-ha. Even though it seems that the signatories seem to hold different views on the content of the “problem of comfort women”.

Thus, the South Korean version of “the fight against falsification” is in full swing, and all those who wish to familiarise themselves with the position of the person who broke the convention regarding the issue may do so using the detailed Summary of the aforementioned book written by the author in English.

It seems that the “fighters against falsifications” have become active (as per usual) at the wrong time. Since, even without them, the situation in North-East (and South-East) Asia is rather challenging. This is clearly recognised by the leaders of both major Asian players, that is China and Japan, that attempt (practically in desperation) to hold back any further degradation of the relationship network in the subregion.

And such recent events as the revival of contacts between China and Japan (that happened at the Paris conference on climate change), trilateral negotiations (at the level of deputy ministers) on creating a free trade zone between China, Japan and South Korea, and the red carpet reception of the Japanese ruling Liberal-Democratic party delegation in Beijing have all played a positive part in the process.

Finally, we can presume that the situation in the Japan-PRC-RK triangle is unlikely to drastically change even if the government of the former put on sackcloth and ashes, as they say, and repeat their statements on Japan’s role in the contemporary history that the other two sides would demand of it. For, in reality, the periodic updating of “historical” themes is one of the indicators of an unfavourable forecast in the present day political climate in the triangle.

At first glance, it seems that it would be appropriate to apply the well-known maxim about the “dead grabbing the living by their feet” to the case of another resurfacing of a theme from the recent past.

But it would not be less accurate (but probably more so) to state the opposite. It is the living that, through their refusal to learn, have become caught up in the current political kerfuffle and will not let the dead souls be put to rest.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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