Japan is not the only Asian country in need of more openness about its own past
By Clarissa Oon
A SINGAPORE history teacher's role-playing of a sword-wielding Japanese soldier, reported by this newspaper late last month, has sparked off a debate that shows Japanese brutality in World War II still touches a nerve here.
The debate began in The Straits Times Forum Page, when cultural studies scholar Liew Kai Khiun criticised teacher Malcolm Tan's creative teaching methods as 'one dimensional', symptomatic of a lack of 'more balanced and broader perspectives about the Japanese Occupation' in the history syllabus.
But his letter in turn sparked others slamming segments of Japanese society for infamously glossing over the military's wartime atrocities. One writer, gynaecologist Wong Mun Tat, compared the other World War II aggressor Germany's open teaching of the Holocaust in schools and widespread recognition of guilt with Japan's relative reticence on its war crimes.
'We can forgive, but not forget' was a line that came up repeatedly in these letters. They referred to harrowing crimes, such as the mass killing and rape of over 100,000 Chinese citizens in the 1937 Nanjing massacre, and closer to home, the Sook Ching massacre of thousands of Singapore Chinese during the Occupation.
And yet the 'good Germany, bad Japan' dichotomy also runs the risk of over-simplification, as irresistible as it seems, given German society's relentless parsing of guilt and responsibility for the killing of six million Jews in numerous museums, films and books - notably Bernhard Schlink's bestselling novel Der Vorleser that became a powerful Oscar-winning Hollywood film, The Reader (2008) - and the fact that Japanese society remains divided in its interpretations of the wartime past.
Confronting moral evil as a collective society is a complex process that is not merely psychological or ethical in nature. As researchers such as Washington University international studies professor Daniel Chirot and political journalist Ian Buruma have shown, geopolitics also has something to do with it.
Germany and Japan faced very different post-war geopolitical realities that influenced how far each country went beyond trying and punishing war criminals and making financial reparations. Geopolitical considerations are also reflected in the timing of official apologies for the atrocities.
West Germany, through its first chancellor Konrad Adenauer, accepted full responsibility for Nazi-era war crimes a few years after the war ended. Japan, however, acknowledged the wartime suffering it had caused South Korea and China only when formal diplomatic ties were established, respectively, in 1965 and 1972. Official recognition that the war was 'aggressive' on Japan's part and full apologies for its wartime conduct in Asia came only in the 1990s.
Basically, West Germany had pragmatic reasons to confront its wartime brutality in order to make nice with its neighbours, whereas Japan faced no such imperatives and could afford to remain in denial for much longer.
The threat of communist East Germany and Eastern Europe, as well as the need to ally itself with the Western European nations it had invaded during the war, forced an impoverished West Germany to ensure that it would never lapse back into its jingoistic ways, right down to educating its young differently.
Japan, however, had no such pressures in its own backyard. The United States, which occupied Japan briefly after the war and gave it liberal democracy as well as its current pacifist Constitution, allowed Emperor Hirohito - the architect of the Japanese war effort - to keep his position. The US needed Japan's help to fight the Korean War in the early 1950s, and so did not force the examination of wartime guilt in the wider Japanese society.
With China, the two Koreas and South-east Asia all distracted by domestic turmoil until the late 1970s, Japan had to account to its neighbours for its wartime atrocities only when the region became more economically interdependent.
As a result, there have always been right-wing Japanese politicians and intellectuals who have ignored the horrors committed by the military in Asia and even insisted that these invading armies were welcomed as liberators.
History textbooks which whitewash wartime abuses are currently used in less than 2 per cent of Japanese schools. Other textbooks do not hide but also do not stimulate debate and analysis of these disturbing events. This was found by Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre in an ongoing comparative study of history textbooks used in East Asian countries.
Critically, however, the study found that the history texts of China, South Korea and Taiwan were also far from objective and coloured by 'the politics of nationalism', as project director Shin Gi Wook told this newspaper in 2009.
The crux of the issue is this: While Japan's neighbours should continue to nudge it to face up more fully to its wartime abuses, these countries should also move towards more honest and open examination of their own histories.
The most egregious example is China, which has excised from history textbooks and public discourse all mention of the mass famine during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), the violent political campaign that was the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and suppression of pro-democracy protests at and near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
What also helps push Asian societies to come to terms with past abuses are years of campaigning by a critical mass of public intellectuals of good conscience.
Asia needs more heroes such as Yuan Tengfei and Saburo Ienaga. Yuan is a Chinese history teacher whose popular online videos discuss the Great Leap Forward famine that killed millions and criticises its architect Mao Zedong, braving house arrest for doing so. Ienaga is a Japanese history professor who fought three decades of legal battles against the whitewashing of the country's war crimes in history textbooks, paving the way for more objective Japanese textbooks.
Singaporeans should also cast a self-critical eye on biases and omissions in the telling of our own national history, even as we take a hard look at the narratives of other countries.