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Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006

Facing the past, embracing the future


Special to The Japan Times

To communicate the truths of history is an act of hope for the future. We thus owe it to the youthful generations of the 21st century to communicate the hatred of war, the commitment to peace, that was engraved in so many lives on Aug. 15, 1945.

A survey conducted in Japan last year revealed disturbing realities: It found that only 45 percent of Japanese in their 20s -- and a scant 26 percent in their teens -- could accurately date the end of World War II. And asked if they thought Japan would go to war during their lifetimes, 15 percent of those in their 20s responded "yes." One in four teenagers expects to experience war.

These attitudes are not unrelated. A healthy vision of the future is not possible without an accurate knowledge of the past.

Aug. 15, 1945, was the day of Japan's defeat in World War II. At the same time for the peoples of Asia, this was a day of liberation from the cruel domination of Japanese militarism. Many Japanese citizens experienced a similar sense of liberation. I will never forget the sight of my father, already in poor health, listing the names of his four drafted sons and murmuring, "Soon they will be home."

For Japanese people living today, Aug. 15 should be a day of renewing our vow to build enduring peace; it should be a day of reaffirming our determination to contribute to the stability and prosperity of Asia.

The misery inflicted by Japanese militarism on the people of Asia is too vast and deep ever to be fully atoned for. Japan must demonstrate, with clear words and earnest actions, the commitment never to repeat the errors of the past. And it must do so in a way that earns the heartfelt trust of the people of Asia.

To make a sincere accounting of historical realities and reflect on past misdeeds is hardly "masochistic" or self-denigrating. It is, rather, a courageous and honorable act.

Japan's war-renouncing Constitution and policy of not possessing nuclear arms are essential conditions for gaining the trust of our fellow Asians. The loss of either of these conditions will increase regional instability and undermine Japan's security.

The benefits Japan has received from Asia are immeasurable. Wet-rice culture, the Chinese writing system, construction and engineering technology, medical treatment and pharmacology, and systems of thought and religious belief -- these are just a few of the cultural riches that have reached Japan from Asia, in particular from our neighbors in China and the Korean Peninsula.

Nor is this debt limited to objects or ideas. Since ancient times, people from throughout Asia have brought to Japan their talents, knowledge and energy, helping to lay the basis for Japan's existence as a country. It is crucial that we remain cognizant, from a larger historical perspective, of these profound and ancient connections with the countries of Asia, to whom we owe an immense cultural debt.

In recent years the idea of an East Asian Community has been gaining momentum. Last year, for example, the first East Asian Summit was held in Kuala Lumpur. Among the important outcomes was agreement to continue dialogue at the highest levels toward the eventual creation of an East Asian Community.

There are a number of cross-border "human security" issues -- from ecological integrity to energy issues and the spread of infectious disease -- that urgently require region-wide cooperation. Tackling such problems can provide concrete opportunities for building collaborative relations in the region.

A sense of a common civilization provided a basis for the initial stages of European integration. Asia is richly diverse in its cultural and religious traditions, as well as political systems. But there is within the region, I believe, a shared spiritual heritage that values harmony between humans and between humanity and nature. I refer to this as an "ethos of coexistence," by which I mean a view of human nature that sees personal identity as most fully realized through our familiarity and engagement with others. This ethos gives precedence to cooperation over rivalry, unity over fragmentation, the pluralistic "we" over the isolated "I."

To foster recognition of our shared past, efforts have been made to write textbooks to be used for the teaching of history throughout Asia. These efforts have bogged down, hindered by nationalist sentiments in different countries, but they should not be abandoned. Here also we can learn from the example of a recently launched joint French-German textbook for the teaching of modern history, a project first proposed by the European Youth Parliament.

Such efforts can encourage awareness that transcends the limitations of individual states. States change and are transformed by the rushing currents of history. What is constant is the people -- human beings and humanity.

If we review history in bird's-eye perspective, it is clear that it is always authoritarian leaders, and the forces that fan the flames of conflict for their own gain, who start wars. And it is always ordinary citizens who pay the price. This is why we need to transcend the confrontations of "our country" versus "theirs," creating a global people's solidarity that confronts and challenges the demonic abuse of authority wherever it occurs.

Asia has the potential to demonstrate a model for shifting from a system centered on national interest to one centered on people's interests.

It is crucial to build a solid, multilayered fabric of friendship and trust, firmly connecting the hearts of ordinary people. Especially vital are exchanges between the young people who will carry the challenges of the future. The solidarity of the youthful citizens of Asia -- of world citizens -- is our most certain bulwark against war.

When human beings live together, conflict is inevitable. War is not. The idea that "we are in conflict" can be reinterpreted to mean "we share a problem." A shared problem can best be met and resolved through shared efforts. Rather than facing off in confrontation, we should together turn to face our common future, united in a shared commitment to the welfare of the young.

While our language, culture, ethnic and religious heritages may differ, the future we must share -- the future of the young people of each society -- is one and the same.

Daisaku Ikeda is president of Soka Gakkai International, and founder of Soka University and the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research. This column runs on the second Thursday of every month.


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