Essay: Asia's Glass Houses

It may seem strange that Japan's imperial past still makes headlines. But the debate over history in Asia has much to do with the present. Revisionists who dispute Japan's wartime responsibility have a contemporary agenda: they seek to revise Japan's pacifist Constitution to enable a more aggressive foreign policy and to improve Japan's place in the world.

These attempts, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's prevarications on the comfort-women question, have understandably made Japan's neighbors nervous. But few of Tokyo's Asian critics have impeccable records themselves. The governments of China, both Koreas and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan have all glossed over the dark blots on their own histories.

Not many countries suffered more in the 20th century than China. Some of this was caused by Japan, but much resulted from Chinese Communist rule. Mao Zedong contributed to the death of several millions from famine with his misguided Great Leap Forward (an agricultural reform program), and the Cultural Revolution led to enormous suffering. Yet Beijing today downplays Mao's mistakes—officially recognizing his legacy as 70 percent positive and 30 percent negative—and little attention is given to his excesses in schools or the media. A vibrant literature does explore the misery he caused. But China's more recent history—especially the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and ongoing efforts to control political action—remains a no-go area, and attempting to address it can land you in prison.

South Korea, despite its democratic culture, is not much better at admitting its mistakes. Long the victims of more-powerful neighbors, Koreans tend to blame outsiders for their failings. And discussion of whether Japan's 35 years of colonial rule made any positive contribution remains anathema. Nor are South Koreans willing to face the fact that thousands of Koreans voluntarily collaborated with the Japanese. Park Chung-hee himself—who ruled as an authoritarian president from 1961 to 1979 and is regarded by many as the father of the modern South Korea—was once an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. But such facts are seldom mentioned. In North Korea, meanwhile, the totalitarian state bans all forms of open discussion of the past, the present or the future.

Of all Japan's neighbors, Taiwan has been the most open in confronting its past, though even there history has been politicized. When martial law was lifted in 1987, there was an explosion of efforts to address the abuses of early Kuomintang rule, especially the "2/28 Incident" of 1947, when up to 20,000 people were killed in intercommunal violence and in a subsequent crackdown by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek. As part of the democratization process that began 20 years ago, the brutalities of the martial-law period have been widely and publicly debated. Yet many pro-independence Taiwanese have begun to challenge the anti-Japanese history promulgated by the KMT and deny Japanese atrocities such as the forced conscription of prostitutes.

Of course, there is one big difference between the historical amnesia suffered by Japan and its neighbors. While the governments of China, the two Koreas and Taiwan may be guilty of trying to obscure negative events in their past, they are mostly dealing with domestic affairs. The suffering caused in these countries was predominantly internal, albeit within contested borders: the Chinese in Tibet, the KMT in Taiwan and the North Koreans in the South. Japan, by contrast, was a foreign occupier that victimized numerous other states. That said, Japan also surrendered unconditionally at the end of World War II and formally accepted responsibility for waging a war of aggression. Tokyo thus bears a special responsibility for its history, and its failure to honestly engage it has perpetuated the politicization of the past across the region.