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#1702, 19 April 2005
Japan, China, South Korea and Contested History
Mohammed Badrul Alam
Miyazaki International College, Japan

Several demonstrations have taken place in key Chinese cities in the last two weeks. In Beijing, 8000 Chinese protested in front of Japanese high-tech companies with banners and singing patriotic songs while burning the Japanese flags. In Shenzhen, 2000 Chinese protested with a call for boycott of anti-Japanese goods such as beer and cell phones.

The immediate trigger to the latest controversy was Japanese Ministry of Education and Culture's decision to officially approve eight new textbooks which, the Chinese critics say, are a selective,  revisionist account of Japanese actions during and before World War II during its colonial occupation of China. The issue was particularly sensitive to China as Japan was in charge of most part of China until 1945 during which the infamous Nanjing massacre took place, one in which apart from rape and looting, biological and chemical weapons were alleged to have been experimented on Chinese civilians. What inflamed the case even more were two inter-related events.

One, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visit each August to Yasukuni shrine near Tokyo that was dedicated to the souls of Japan's war dead including convicted criminals had continued unabated albeit in a private and non-official way.

Two, disagreements over a group of islands in East China Sea which Japan calls the Senkaku islands and China calls Diaoyu. Both China and Japan claim these group of islands to be its own.

Furthermore, one has to see this issue in context as both China and Japan are yet to agree on acceptable, demarcated maritime border in East China Sea with possible oil and natural gas reserve. Needless to say, both China and Japan are heavily dependent on imported energy, and hence both the countries are actively seeking new sources of energy to sustain and promote their respective economies.

Finally, Japan (along with India, Germany and Brazil) has been actively pursuing for its inclusion at various multilateral and international forums in an expanded United Nations Security Council, as and when it takes place. If the UN Security Council reform idea goes forward and picks up steam, it would mean a reduced importance on matters related to Asia for Beijing, where China is till now the only nation representing it  in the exclusive Group of 5 with veto rights.

As far as Japan-South Korea spat is concerned, the South Korean government has taken strong exception to Japanese government's approval of a civics textbook supporting Japan's claim to a cluster of islands on the Sea of Japan held by South Korea which it calls as Dokodo and are called Takeshima in Japan.

Japan had taken control of the uninhabited islets in the Sea of Japan in 1905 as it was expanding its sphere of influence during the Meiji era. In spite of South Korea's claim of historical ownership over these islands, Japan had consistently maintained these islands as its own. Although South Korea since the 1950s stationed small contingent of South Korean Police units, Japan had claimed these islets as these were surrounded by rich fishing waters so crucial to Japan's economy.

Like in the case of China, Korea was also colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945 and many Koreans even from today's generation feel deeply hurt due to Japanese Red Army's war time crimes that were committed against Korean citizens and on the highly sensitive issue of 'comfort women' as well as Japan's refusal to issue an unconditional apology and failure to offer due monetary compensation.

On the face of it, these controversies may suggest that in Northeast Asia, bilateral relationship between China and Japan on the one hand and that of Japan and South Korea on the other are perhaps heading downward. But one has to remember that Japan is world's second largest economy and in order to maintain that edge and lead, Japan will not do anything to jeopardize its burgeoning trade with China which is now Japan's biggest trading partner, having overtaken the United States.

For diffusing the textbook issue, the recent proposal of Japanese Foreign minister, Nobutaka Machimra could be pursued. He proposed at the Japan-China foreign ministerial meeting for a joint, collaborative history research project so as to view and analyse carefully the opposing viewpoints and which in turn might deepen the mutual understanding. This may follow the lead of Japan-South Korea joint history research project whose work is already in progress and into intense discussions.

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