By Donald Kirk
TOKYO ― Japanese have trouble understanding. Why do all the countries surrounding Japan seem so hostile? What is it the Japanese have done to incur the wrath of the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Russians? The sense here is that of Japan encircled, the odd power out, the pariah at the party.
On the streets of Tokyo, of course, you don’t really sense the problem. This thriving capital gives every impression of hustling as always; powerful, aggressive, incredibly high-priced. Ok, there’s talk of the GDP declining somewhat while the population ages and goes into decline. People mention the ``lost decades” when the gross domestic product stopped rising year on year, but you don’t really feel it in the air.
No matter what they say, however, Japan remains the strongest country in the region, including an aggressive, upwardly mobile China. China`s GDP may have surpassed that of Japan a few years ago, but on a per capita basis it’s far lower, and who believes that Chinese industry, research and development and all the rest have caught up with the Japanese? Not likely.
So, aside from the economy, stupid, what`s grabbing headlines here? Nothing like a fracas with China to charge the atmosphere with memories of old times, of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s when Japanese troops rampaged over the Chinese mainland. The memories go back much deeper into history, of course, but perhaps the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 might be as good a place as any to start.
It was then that the Japanese broke China`s grasp over the Korean peninsula, taking for good measure the island of Formosa, now Taiwan, and exposing the fatal weakness of the Qing dynasty, which succumbed to revolutionary unrest and eventually Red revolution. Now the Communist dynasty, enriched by capitalism, reigns supreme, and the desire for vengeance for past humiliations is paramount.
What could be a better way to begin than to stage a few provocations around the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited but strategically located southwest of Okinawa, closer to Taiwan than they are to the nearest Japanese island? In recent days we`ve seen a few colorful incidents ― Hong Kong activists landing briefly before the Japanese Coast Guard grabbed them and sent their vessel on its way back home. The next day, Japanese rightists made their own landing, only to be chased off again by the Coast Guard.
Anti-Japanese hatred, though, was most evident in rioting in Chinese cities, burning and looting of Japanese-made vehicles and shrieks of denunciations of Japan. Might all this hatred be a passing phenomenon that diplomats and bureaucrats might control with well-chosen warnings and assurances? Maybe not. The Japanese aren`t going to yield on the Senkakus, which one bureaucrat told me was ``not an issue” simply because ``they`re ours.”
Nor can the Japanese expect a word of sympathy from the South Koreans. They might not support the Chinese, considering China`s bond with its protectorate North Korea, but the last thing President Lee Myung-bak is going to do is take Japan`s side in a territorial dispute.
South Korea`s own history of oppression at the hands of the Japanese is all wrapped up in sovereignty claims over Dokdo, the twin rocky islets that the Japanese call Takeshima. The best way for Lee to try to regain popularity was to go there and wave a rhetorical fist.
It`s not as though Dokdo is of all that much strategic importance. Navy ships aren’t docking on its forbidding shoreline as a base for patrolling nearby waters.
The point is that South Korea’s fierce hold on Dokdo stands for the need to avenge all the wrongs of the Japanese colonial era ― the killings after March 1, 1919, the arrests and torture of political prisoners, the kidnapping of young girls to serve as ``comfort women” for Japanese soldiers, the warping of Japanese imperial history and textbooks, to name some of the most publicized, insoluble, irreconcilable issues.
Whenever these topics bubble over into some new debate or incident or controversy, someone comes up with the notion of an ``apology.” How many times have Japanese prime ministers apologized to Koreans for the sins of their predecessors? Now someone`s saying the Japanese emperor, Akihito, should apologize. So what? As if that would make a difference. The wounds, the sense of Hahn, go too deep into the Korean national sub-conscience.
Not that the Japanese could not make amends. Compensation for comfort women? Abandonment of the claim to Dokdo? Revision of textbook accounts of Japanese imperial history and World War II? Forget it. The Japanese don’t get it. They’re not going to do any of these things. They’d rather fret and fume over ``why Japan is not liked” than do anything substantive to repair the image, much less redress wrongs.
If the Japanese are inclined to soul-searching on the rancor engendered by these controversies, they’re likely to say they’re not skilled at foreign policy. All these other people around the region are mocking us, making fun of us, holding the Japanese in contempt ― these are some of the comments I hear from Japanese people. Then there’s the view that ``Koreans are crazy” or ``Chinese are stupid.”
The bitterness is a permanent condition. It won’t go away. Let us hope common sense and diplomacy keep the lid on boiling emotions before populist politicians lead everyone into another era of bloodshed and regional war.
Columnist Donald Kirk, author of books and articles on war and peace from Asia to the Middle East, can be reached at email@example.com. His website: www.donaldkirk.com.