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Friday, April 13, 2007

Legacy of Asian liberation

Taiwanese politics appears to be "boiling." Scandals involving political leaders or their relatives have "heated" the political waters. Seen from the perspectives of democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law and justice -- rather than from that of what effects the turmoil might have on Japan-Taiwan relations -- it is not the political scandals themselves that are important but the way in which they are addressed and, in particular, whether there is strict adherence to judicial proceedings and how politicians take responsibility for their actions.

It is worth recalling that it took considerable time and countless trials and tribulations for democratic politics to become established in Taiwan. If democratization is the process of liberation from tyranny, authoritarianism and the legacy of feudalism, then one of the greatest trials for the people of Taiwan must surely have been the events leading up to World War II.

As the Japanese empire strengthened its assimilation policies aimed at making Imperial subjects of the Taiwanese and other peoples under its rule, Taiwanese intellectuals faced a difficult dilemma. Some fell into line with the assimilation policies, others resisted, while yet others sought refuge in poetry and music. For this reason, while Japan's defeat in World War II may on the surface have signified liberation from colonial rule, it was not necessarily clear what people were being liberated from in the true sense of the word.

Then came the rule of the Nationalists (Kuomintang). Basing its legitimacy on its resistance against Japanese rule and its anticommunism, the Kuomintang suppressed the Taiwanese democracy movement. When the Taiwanese people were finally freed from the oppression of the Kuomintang, they had to confront head-on the fundamental question of the nature of Taiwanese autonomy. The issue of "liberation" from the shackles of the past continues to linger in the minds of the Taiwanese.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the defeat of the Japanese Army and the victory of the communist forces in mainland China signified liberation from the legacy of feudalism and semi-colonial rule, as well as from a bloody civil war and foreign interference. That's why the subsequent period is referred to in China as "post-liberation," rather than "postwar."

Even China, however, has yet to be entirely liberated from the events that took place in the post-liberation era, such as the massive loss of life during the Cultural Revolution and the suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

A somewhat similar situation can be found in South Korea. Although the country was "liberated" from Japanese colonial rule and regained its sovereignty, the responsibility of those who, to a greater or lesser extent, collaborated with Japan's colonial policies was allowed to remain vague during this process. Under the subsequent military government, democracy activists were the victims of widespread repression conducted under an anticommunist, anti-North Korean banner. Consequently, while South Koreans may have been liberated from Japanese rule, they were not liberated in the sense of fully coming to terms with their own past.

What does Aug. 15 signify for Japan? This question is a constant source of debate. To be sure, this day symbolizes liberation from the heavy sacrifices of war -- from the air raids, the day-to-day struggle to survive and the deaths of loved ones in battle. But did Aug. 15, 1945, mark a true liberation from the immaturity of democracy and repression of freedom of expression witnessed before and during the war?

While the United States on the whole, promoted freedom and democracy during its occupation of Japan, it suppressed media coverage of the devastation caused by the atomic bombings, frowned upon kabuki and other cultural forms, and carried out a ruthless "red purge." Surely not all of this served the real cause of liberation. With hindsight, while Japan was freed from much of the legacy of feudalism carried over even after the Meiji Restoration, the country has yet to be truly liberated from its past.

Taiwan, South Korea, China and Japan must all think long and hard about their own pasts, to identify those aspects from which they have been completely liberated and those from which they have not. In such deliberation lies the path to true liberation.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).

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