Textbook war escalates as China and Korea vent their fury at Japanese rewriting of history

David McNeill
Monday 11 April 2005 00:00 BST

Thousands of Chinese protesters pelted the Japanese embassy in Beijing with missiles and shouted "Japanese pigs come out" and "stop distorting history" over the weekend, dragging Sino-Japanese relations to a new low.

Thousands of Chinese protesters pelted the Japanese embassy in Beijing with missiles and shouted "Japanese pigs come out" and "stop distorting history" over the weekend, dragging Sino-Japanese relations to a new low.

The protests against Tokyo's authorisation of textbooks that many Chinese say whitewash Japan's 15-year occupation is the latest incident to rock the shaky partnership between Asia's leading power and its rising star.

Protests also took place in South Korea, where Gil Won Ok and her elderly comrades gathered at the Japanese embassy in Seoul to plead, pray and bitterly denounce Tokyo. "Who will take away my pain," cried the frail 77-year-old who was barely a teenager when she was forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. "Atone for the past and let me die in peace!"

The pensioners - among the few still alive from up to 200,000 comfort women (sex slaves) of the Imperial Japanese Army, have been assembling at the embassy since 1992 to demand an apology. But neither time nor mortality has dulled the emotional heat of their campaign, which is regularly stoked by what Chinese and Koreans consider fresh insults. The new textbooks, which Korean government spokesman Lee Kyu Hyung said "beautify and justify" Japan's occupation of much of Asia until 1945, have added fuel to the fire.

The most contentious history text removes all references to the comfort women and suggests that Korea and China invited or benefited from the Japanese occupation. A civics text claims jurisdiction over a clump of rocks called Takeshima (in Korean, Tokdo) that Korea has held since 1945. "What nonsense is this," said an editorial in the normally mild Korea Herald.

Written by a group of neo-nationalist academics, the two texts, with the backing of a right-wing media conglomerate, have sold nearly one million copies since 2001. This success has dragged the teaching of history sharply to the right: just one new history textbook out of eight mentions the comfort women this year, down from seven in the mid-1990s, and references to other war crimes have been toned down or dropped.

If Tokyo can afford to ignore the anguish of Gil Won Ok and her dwindling fellow survivors, however, the weekend riots in its biggest trading partner, China, are far more worrying. The textbooks have inflamed many already angry at Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Tokyo war memorial, the Yasukuni Shrine, and Japan's handling of the territorial conflict over the Diaoyutai (in Japanese, Senkaku) Islands claimed by both China and Japan. A boycott of Japanese goods is growing, and attacks on Japanese businesses in Chengdu and Shenzhen have spooked otherwise bullish investors.

The attacks come on the heels of an online campaign in China which claims to have gathered more than 25 million signatures against Japan's hope for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. China's foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said last week that China will not endorse Japan's UN campaign until the nation "clarifies some historic issues" regarding its aggression. In a year full of political and business possibilities, Tokyo is finding the way forward blocked by its undigested history.

Tokyo's response to the textbook controversy has been a series of bland statements calling on Korea and China to prevent differences in historical interpretation from damaging ties. "It is important to control emotions," Mr Koizumi said. But behind the diplomatic platitudes lies a hardening of sentiment among his fellow Liberal Democrats, well over 100 of whom - including his Education Minister, Nariaki Nakayama - publicly back the historical revisionist movement in schools. Under Mr Koizumi's government, hundreds of teachers have been punished for refusing to stand for the national anthem.

Many in the government say that Japan has apologised enough, and given enough cash - 3,000bn yen (£15bn) in overseas aid to China alone since 1980. China is stoking patriotism and anti-Japanese sentiment, they say, while Korea has failed to digest its own history of collaboration with Imperial Japan.

Historical revisionists also criticise US and European "hypocrisy" for failing to teach their own children about their colonial past. "Great Britain committed war crimes," one of the movement's leading lights, Professor Nobukatsu Fujioka, said. "America too. My concern is that Japanese children are taught to hate their country. They're taught that only Japan was wrong in the war. Don't all countries use history to instill pride in students?"

Japan is doing little to clear up its murky colonial past, however. "The Japanese government is inflaming opinion across Asia with these textbooks," said Takashi Hasegawa, a teacher and anti-textbook campaigner in Tokyo. "If they really think Chinese communists are to blame, why are they playing into their hands?"

Tokyo hopes that red-hot trade with China, which grew by 17 per cent last year as China surpassed the US as Japan's largest trade partner, and growing cultural links with Korea, will overcome the fallout from its unpopular take on history. But a looming clash of old nationalisms in the world's most dynamic economic region may not be good for business.

Although support among ordinary Japanese for school textbooks that extol the benefits of Japan's imperial rule in Asia is minuscule, the backing of much of the country's political leadership is bound to have an impact on the revisionist campaign. Revisionists already control the country's largest educational council in Tokyo, which will decide this summer whether the textbooks are to be used in thousands of schools.

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