The View From Here - China and Japan - Why tension in East Asia is far from history

22nd March 2013 at 00:00

The row over a handful of islets between China and Japan reached a new low recently when China threatened to pull the trigger on Japanese warships and planes patrolling the islands. Educational exchange visits have been scrapped and an unofficial boycott of Japanese goods is in place in China, where last year Japanese businesses were set on fire.

Curiously, both sides blame one another's education system, saying that biased history textbooks and education are the root cause of the hostility that threatens to explode after more than 50 years of peace between the two nations.

Japan's newly elected conservative nationalist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is accusing what he called China's jingoistic school curriculum of fostering "anti-Japanese" feelings. "What is unfortunate," Abe said, "is that in the case of China, teaching patriotism (is equivalent to) teaching anti-Japanese sentiment. In other words, their education policy of teaching patriotism has become even more pronounced as they started the 'reform and opening' policy."

Meanwhile, China's long charge sheet lists "Japanese nationalistic education", "distorted lies" about the Second World War in textbooks and Japan's perceived step to the right as responsible for the latest confrontation.

Korea and China have long been in dispute with Japan over what they see as distortions and creeping revisionism in textbooks concerning Japan's conduct in the Second World War and its territorial claims. Japan in turn claims that its neighbours' education on Japan and the war is twisted.

The new Japanese government, voted in on a landslide, may very well be right wing - its new education minister and the prime minister want to see more patriotic textbooks on Japan's recent history - but many in the country have tried to accommodate their neighbours' demands in the past. Japan feels it has done enough in its history textbooks, which are screened every year for suitability by the government. Now Japan's government would like to see a more "positive spin" on Japan in its history texts.

As for the charge that anti-Japanese propaganda is rife in Chinese schools, many scholars have agreed. A Stanford University report, which makes a comparative study of all school history books in the region to compare how historical memory is shaped in those school systems, has previously pointed out that Japan does a better job than China or South Korea at reflecting wartime atrocities in its textbooks.

The debate over history textbooks is a symptom of a larger problem: the persistence of divisive nationalism in East Asian countries, using "war stories" to stir domestic patriotism at the cost of regional peace and cooperation. The Stanford academics said that reconciliation was nigh on impossible as long as the collective memories taught in schools were skewed towards hatred or ignorance. If war does break out between China and Japan, failure to agree on setting the historical record straight will have played its part.

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