Effective activism is crucial in opposing Japanese textbooks

Chinese and Korean people have reason to be angry, but their actions must have limits.

by Diana Fu

This last month, massive anti-Japan demonstrations scaled to a climax across China and South Korea. Media reports leave much to be desired. Amid the passion and fury, all sides must reflect deeply, meticulously and through multiple lenses.

While the Chinese media have kept their focus on “hurt national feelings,” the British and U.S. media have chosen to cast the situation in terms of “who will lead Asia in the 21st century.” There is really only one objective fact: The Chinese and Korean people are angry and have reason to be.

Japan cannot get away with distorting history in its new textbooks. History is often biased in favor of the storyteller, and few countries can boast of having purely objective history books, but there are certain basic standards that draw the line between educational textbooks and opinion essays.

In this case, the Nanjing Massacre that killed nearly 300,000 people was, in fact, a massacre, not “an incident that resulted in many deaths,” as a 2001 version of a Japanese textbook stated. In the same sense, the Japanese occupation of China and the Korean peninsula was indeed an aggressive invasion of national sovereignties.

Textbooks that deliberately evade the word “invasion” twist the very nature of the Pacific theater of World War II and thus lose their educational value. Also, it is outrageous to not even mention the existence of “comfort women” whose name masks the cruel nature of forced prostitution of many Chinese and Korean women by the Japanese military during the war.

What is most alarming is these textbooks are designed for 13- to 15-year-old middle school students in Japan. At these ages, most students have only begun to form their worldviews and have not yet learned the tools of analysis to distinguish propaganda.

If a generation of Japanese children is taught the Nanjing Massacre was a small accident in history, I shudder to think what will happen when they are policy-makers, scholars and lawyers.

Recently, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura asked the Chinese government to apologize for not doing enough to protect Japanese diplomats. Perhaps Japan should first apologize to its students for approving such slanted history textbooks.

An expression of “deep remorse” on the part of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for what happened in World War II is not enough. What people want to see is an official apology accompanied by action.

That said, it is also imperative to monitor the demonstrations so that they don’t escalate into ethnic hatred. One right-wing group in Japan, the Society for History Textbook Reform, designed the textbooks. Its views are not reflective of all Japanese people. In fact, there are many nongovernmental organizations in Japan actively seeking the withdrawal of these textbooks.

In this light, I find it highly dangerous that anti-Japanese sentiment has begun to spread in China from protesting textbooks to a general antagonism toward anything or anyone having to do with Japan. Protests with rational objectives are effective. Unfortunately, “rationality” and “protest” seem to be intrinsically opposed to one another.

Recent demonstrations in Beijing have escalated into riots in which people vandalized several Japanese restaurants (mostly operated by Chinese people) in the heat of extreme nationalism. This behavior shouldn’t be applauded. After all, both the vandals and those who wrote these textbooks were also motivated by nationalism.

In the end, the real test of effective activism on the part of the Chinese and Korean people lies not in shouting slogans. It rests on clear reflection of the harm that’s been done and where to draw the boundaries between peaceful protest and ethnic hatred. After all, in times of controversy, it is far too easy for politicians to manipulate people’s passion for a “nation” they can neither see nor touch.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected]