At War with History

By Hajari, Nisid; Itoi, Kay et al. | Newsweek International, August 27, 2001 | Go to article overview

At War with History

Hajari, Nisid, Itoi, Kay, Takayama, Hideko, Hau, Louis, Thompson, Meredith, Voorhies, Geoffrey, Vitug, Marites, Decherd, Chris, Hail, John, Tan, T. J., Moreau, Ron, MacKinnon, Ian, Hussain, Zahid, Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International

Only the guys who cut off their fingers were new. Otherwise the drama played out in North Asia last week followed a familiar script: Japanese prime minister visits controversial war shrine, while refusing to alter a new junior-high-school history book that allegedly whitewashes Japan's record in World War II. Neighboring capitals protest loudly; some Japanese protest more quietly. (And in South Korea, 20 young men lop off the tips of their pinkie fingers in a morbid gesture of fury.) The lingering impression is an all-too-common one--that Japan still refuses to come to grips with its warmongering past.

What is less familiar is the fact that nearly every Asian country betrays a similarly slipshod memory. The finger-chopping protesters probably don't realize that their own high-school history books contain only one sentence on the Korean "comfort women" abused by Japanese soldiers. Indonesian textbooks don't even mention the estimated 500,000 people massacred in 1965 after Suharto came to power, an event one CIA report described "as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century." New history books in the Indian state of Gujarat, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, claim that Aryans are indigenous to India and all other non-Hindus--Muslims, Christians, Parsis--are foreigners. A university-level textbook in neighboring Maharashtra says bluntly, "Islam teaches only atrocities."

The vast gaps and distortions in memory raise the obvious question of whether there is some willful cultural forgetfulness at work in the region--whether Asians in particular cannot look squarely at the past. Even Youk Chhang, the Cambodian researcher most responsible for collecting thousands upon thousands of documents chronicling the terror inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, says his countrymen's reluctance to face up to the genocide "is perhaps a matter of an Asian way. Face is more important than truth or justice." The fierce debate in Cambodia over whether and how to try Khmer Rouge leaders underscores how critical the process can be in one particular society. Many historians wonder whether the region itself requires a similar catharsis, one that might free minds to see flaws in contemporary Asian society as well as in the past.

In Japan's case, the issue of the war continues to bedevil relations with China, while South Korea has withdrawn diplomats and threatened to block Japanese cultural imports over the current textbook row. The dueling histories promulgated in India and Pakistan naturally fuel their rivalry on the Subcontinent. But in other countries the danger of not engaging in a re-examination of the past is perhaps more subtle: how healthy can Thai democracy be when its high-school students learn virtually nothing about Army-led student massacres in 1973 and 1976? "One reason we have so many ethnic, religious and social problems is because important subjects are either taboo or explained incorrectly," says Arief Rahman, director of the Lab School, a private school in Jakarta. "We have to start openly writing about and discussing all controversial issues in the classroom if we want to promote understanding and peace."

Unlike many Asian countries, Germany has learned the value of facing history squarely; the country has not simply owned up to the atrocities committed during the war, but delved into them in a way that inspired a reappraisal of German society itself. The impetus, however, came more from political will than from cultural inclination. The country had lost two major wars, not just one, and "there were no more excuses," says Rainer Riemenschneider, a historian at the Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig, Germany. Key postwar politicians had spent the war in exile or out of favor with the Nazi regime, and even among ordinary citizens, a consensus quickly developed that the country had to make a break with its past if it was to move forward. Integration into NATO demanded that the country mend fences with its neighbors, which now promotes the kind of easy economic and social intercourse that is still lacking in North Asia. …

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