Yale professor calls for textbooks to embrace shameful past
By Chung Hyun-chae
History Professor Daniel Vernon Botsman of Yale University talks during an interview with The Korea Times at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Saturday. / Korea Times
A Yale University history professor stressed the importance of history education, particularly in Northeast Asia, at a time when the region's geopolitical landscape is rapidly changing.
Professor Daniel Vernon Botsman suggested in an interview with The Korea Times Saturday that the region's three countries should teach youngsters that change is possible and actions they would take can really make a difference.
"We need to teach young people, who have not really been alive for long enough to experience big changes in a world, that change is possible, and sometimes it can be a good change or a bad change," he said. "And in both cases, history education can serve to empower young people to take actions that can make those changes."
He visited Korea last week to attend a conference co-organized by Ewha Womans University and Yale University to discuss Korea's cultural transformation under the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule. He has been a chair of the Council on East Asian Studies at the school since 2011.
He believes that teaching history correctly is much more important as controversies have emerged over the interpretation of history, especially modern history, among the three Northeast Asian nations ― Korea, China and Japan.
"Learning history correctly is essential. Understanding where you came from and how the world became is important. Keep thinking about what changes are possible and desirable in the future," he said. Textbook issue
Botsman said that it is crucial to develop proper history textbooks to address such controversies in a responsible way. He also called for the creation of an environment in which open debate and discussion of key issues is encouraged.
"A good history textbook should teach people to have a sense of humility about the present situation, particularly in a country like Korea whose people are young," the professor said.
South Korea has been growing up at a fast pace in terms of economy, as well as democracy.
Botsman said that in 1930s, Koreans hardly could believe the Japanese colonial period would end, and that it also may have been difficult for people to think democracy would come to Korea, much less that the nation would ever become a wealthy country.
All those became realities owing to the hard work and sacrifices of the people. "Young people need to appreciate today and be aware of that there was a lot of suffering that happened in order for the current situation to exist," he said.
"And more importantly, they should learn that there's no guarantee these things will continue ― the annexation of Korea by Japan is a good example of this ― so they should be able to fight to protect positive aspects inherited from past generations," the scholar said..
In this regard, history textbooks should embrace one's shameful past, Botsman said. "It is because one can also learn from the things that have not been good, as well as the cherished things."
As for a jointly authored textbook with broad perspectives from Korea, Japan and China, which was proposed by President Park Geun-hye last year, he said, "It might be a valuable experiment, but I also think it is possible for people within each country to develop textbooks which address important issues in responsible ways."
He mentioned the controversy over a textbook published by Kyohak Publishing which critics say carries incorrect content and defends the nation's former authoritarian leaders.
Contrary to Botsman's belief that history textbooks should be written with modesty, the Kyohak textbook mostly described only the bright sides of Korean history.
"At first, I was particularly shocked to know that the textbook was plagiarized from Wikipedia, which undermined the value of historical education. But one thing I thought was that, in many ways, it's a sign of the robust health of Korean society in that people have been debating about this," he said. Open discussion
He reiterated the significance of open discussion on history.
However, he criticized politicians for trying to take advantage of historical issues for their politician gain.
And similar "history wars" happen all over the world, so this is not only a problem for Korea but a global issue, the professor said.
"In Australia, under the former conservative Prime Minister John Howard, there was a similar debate. In that case, there was an attempt to downplay Australia's racist history, particularly the history of relations between whites and the Aboriginal population. It became politicized as a result of it," he said.
Not only do countries politicize their local history, but they sometimes distort and play with the others' for various reasons, including to distract people's attention away from current problems.
"It is true for Japan too. It's easier for politicians to talk about only positive aspects, rather than have to talk about terrible things," said Botsman, who was a visiting professor at Osaka City University in Japan.
He expressed his regrets about Abe's attitude toward history, especially related to Korea.
The scholar, who has been studying Japan in the 1990s, thinks Abe's attitude is disadvantageous to Japan.
"Japan and Korea have so many reasons to cooperate and to be better friends," he explained.
He also said he was disappointed with recent developments related to the Kono Statement. Last month Japan announced a review of the Kono Statement and concluded it was the outcome of diplomatic bargaining between Korea and Japan.
The Kono Statement is important evidence in which former chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono admitted that the Japanese military was engaged in forcing young Korea women into sexual slavery.
"I think it's true that rise of confident, nationalistic China makes it easier for people like Abe to prop up nationalist sentiment. But it's good to remain aware of the fact that the Japanese government or politicians' behaving in an extremely poor way shouldn't automatically lead to the assumption that the entire population is supportive of that," Botsman warned.
Japan's attitude has many times compared with that of Germany, which admitted responsibility for the Holocaust and deeply apologized for its actions.
Asked what made the two countries take such different attitudes toward their pasts, he said it might be how long certain issue have been discussed openly, and how the nations victimize themselves.
"In case of Germany, film footage of the concentration camps was shown all over the world right after the World War II, while a lot of issues were not properly discussed and solved due to aftermath of the war in Asia," he said. "The fact that ordinary Japanese people think they were the victims of the war, which is kind of a distancing, could make it hard for them to take responsibilities for bad things that have been done under their names."
Distortion of history
Besides Japan, China also has tried to distort Northeast Asia's history, claiming Korea's ancient Goguryeo Kingdom as being part of Chinese history.
To cope with those efforts to distort history, Botsman suggested building a environment in which the pursuit of truth is respected and people can consider various viewpoints and perspectives about the past, through open, honest debate and discussion.
"There can be factual mistakes in history. The best way is to crystallize the issues and interpretations, and talk about them. There's nothing of right or wrong. It's really a matter of how you understand the world," he said, adding that it is also important to have a healthy press and academic environment where people can speak without fear of recrimination.
Regarding some complicated issues like Japan's claim to Dokdo, South Korea's easternmost islets, it would be great if the nations concerned could find a way to create a new model for countries around the world to deal with the disputes by agreeing to some kind of cooperative framework.