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Friday, April 29, 2005


Common projects could help ease frictions over history

Staff writer

See the main story: Japan, Germany face parallel challenges in era of change

Japan should launch some future-oriented projects in tandem with China and South Korea to change those two neighbors' lingering fixation with past history, German journalists told the April 15 Keizai Koho Center symposium.

European experience shows that such efforts take a lot of time before they bear fruit, they said.

The symposium was held just as anti-Japanese demonstrations were raging in China and South Korea over what they denounced as Tokyo's attempts to whitewash past militarism and atrocities.

Germany -- Japan's World War II ally -- has been frequently singled out as an example that Japan should follow in confronting its wartime past and appropriately rebuilding ties with its neighbors.

Clemens Wergin, an editorial writer with the Berlin-based Der Tagesspiegel newspaper, said the underlying reasons for the current tensions between Japan and China are of "geostrategic nature."

Wergin described Chinese accusations against Japan as "largely an instrumentalization of a historical argument for political means." He also indicated that the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the war -- such as the Holocaust -- were more serious in scale than what Japan did.

Still, Wergin said it is wrong for Japanese people to assume that it was easier for Germans to confront the past because they could blame Adolf Hitler for the atrocities and purify the nation.

"Your foreign minister (Nobutaka Machimura) has just uttered a variant of that notion, by saying, 'Germans could blame everything bad on the Nazis, by almost arguing that the Nazis were a different race of people from the Germans.' "

Complicit in crimes

"Actually, the opposite is the case. In the last 30 years, Germans acknowledged that it was a failure of the major parts of its society to let the Nazis and their ideology rise in the first place, and that then a lot of simple Germans -- not only party or SS members -- were complicit in the crimes afterward.

"I think it is this serious stocktaking by the German society that earned us the respect of many Europeans" together with repeated apologies by German political leaders toward their neighbors," Wergin told the audience.

It would be helpful, he said, if Japan's neighbors see its society seriously engage in a debate about its own history.

While there is often resentment in Japan that it is still criticized despite having already apologized for its wartime aggressions, Wergin said apologies are repeated by German politicians whenever war-related commemoration ceremonies take place in Europe. When they make first official visit to Israel, for instance, the politicians visit a memorial for the Holocaust victims every time, he added.

"So one time is evidently not enough. A few times isn't even enough," he said. Japan should also not underestimate the public sensitivities to wartime history among its Asian neighbors, he added.

Attempts by Chinese or South Korean leaders to use the historic issues for political purposes may not be fair, "but they would not succeed in doing so if history wasn't a sore spot for many Chinese and Koreans," Wergin said.

Even when Japanese government leaders and politicians think that their neighbors' claims are exaggerated, it would still be good for Japan's national interest to take their historic sensitivities into account, he said. In this sense, he noted, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine do not serve Japan's interests.

Apologies need someone on the other side to receive them -- and receive them well, Wergin said, adding that East Asia has been a "much more unfriendly environment for Japan" to have its apologies accepted than Europe had been for postwar Germany.

"If we had not had the European Union -- or the common European market as it was once called -- as a project in Europe, I think we would find ourselves today still discussing history in Europe. So I think it's very crucial that you have a common project to engage upon for the future," he said.

Repeated repentance

Wergin said it is something of a common understanding in Europe today that Germany will continue to repent for what it has done and that politicians in neighboring countries -- with the exception of some radicals -- will not exploit German history and use it against Berlin.

"I think this is the result of the common project of EU, and I see you have difficulty defining a common project for the East Asian region, but I think it could be a good start to start engaging in such a process . . . to change the fixation with history (into) a fixation with the future," he said.

Wolfgang Hirn, reporter and editor with the Hamburg-based monthly Manager Magazin, agreed that regional community-building will be a good common objective for Japan and its Asian neighbors to pursue.

But as the European experience shows, such a process takes a long time -- probably decades, he pointed out.

It was only in last two few years that countries in the region started talking about an East Asian community, and it was China -- rather than Japan -- that has served as the driving force behind it, Hirn said.

Naoaki Okabe, a senior executive officer and editorial page writer for Nihon Keizai Shimbun who served as a moderator of the symposium, said Japan has so far been cautious about the notion of an East Asian community because an earlier proposal by then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad met with strong opposition from the United States, Japan's key ally.

Also, Japanese government bureaucrats have been reluctant to take such initiatives for fear that the country might be seen as reviving imperialist slogans it used when invading Asia during World War II, advocating "East Asian co-prosperity," he added.

Sabine Muscat, editor at the political news desk of Financial Times Deutschland, said the governments of Japan, China and South Korea should turn recent tensions over history issues into an opportunity to finally come to terms with the past and find ways to discuss a possible common future.

Muscat noted that from the viewpoint of an outsider, all the three parties appear to be acting rather irrationally -- feuding over Takeshima, a group of rocky uninhabited islets, for example.

"All the three countries attach great importance to symbolism . . . and all these add up to tensions," she said.

As a country which is looking to play a more active role in international politics, as seen in its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, Japan should take the initiative to break the deadlock in its relations with its neighbors, Muscat told the audience.

"Maybe it's a mistake for Japan to compare itself with China, because you are a democracy . . . and a democracy is more able (than China) to find ways to deal with such a dangerous deadlock.

"I can hear a lot of Japanese people say, 'We do this, but China also has a long history of (nationalist) education . . . and they started this East China Sea drilling,' but I think someone has to break the deadlock," she said. As a mature democracy, it will probably make sense for Japan to search for a symbolic gesture that would break this deadlock, she added.

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