Friday, April 08, 2005

Perceptions of Japan and why there is no hope for Asia

The South Koreans have been working themselves into a collective frenzy in recent weeks over perceived provocations by Japan. The inflammatory Dokdo versus Takeshima dispute has been followed by the approval of nationalistic textbooks, and topped off by recommendations for Japan to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. And its not just the Koreans, the Chinese are equally outraged over the Japanese textbooks and UN ambition not to mention Japan-China dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. It’s enough to make one want to cut off their pinky finger to teach the Japanese a lesson.

In Europe however, Germany has also been named as a prospective permanent member to the UN Security Council. Despite both the Brits and French being on the council with power to veto, nary a word of dismay has been forthcoming. There is no debate on textbooks, no land disputes and no question that the Germans have taken full stock of the actions of the Third Reich. In contrast to Japan and Korea, French and Germany are seen as keen allies rather than the enemies they were during World War II.

So why is it that Germany is good friends with France (and the rest of Europe/World) but the Japanese are still viewed with suspicion, especially by Korea and China? A recent survey by Brookings shows that 77% of Germans had positive views of France and its influence in the world, the highest among responding nations. There is need to do a survey to know that Korea or China would not have a similar opinion of Japan. While it may not be completely comparable it is worth contrast how the Europeans managed to ‘move on’ while the Japanese Korean relations remain cemented in WWII antagonism.

The first factor, and in my opinion, the most important is institutions. As the Economist points out, in contrast to Japan and Korea and China, France and Germany established from the start a textbook commission to ensure agreement over the issue of how to portray the events of the war. Fifty some years later and we find Japan and Korea still bitterly divisive over the issue and rather than getting better, the situation has been worsening. The central element here is that the two views of history are diverging over time rather than converging. Teaching the new generation different sides of the story means that the new leaders of Japan and Korea have completely different views of the war. In contrast, France and Germany have taught the new generation a mutually acceptable view so they can both countries lead a new generation unencumbered by the faults of their forefathers but with the lessons of the past valuably learnt.

In addition to the textbook commission are the more vital institutions set up after the war designed to ensure better relations and co-dependence in the future. The European Coal and Steel Community which has evolved into the modern day EU, NATO, and the G8 are examples of key institutional bodies that have required France and Germany to come together in a diplomatic and international setting as partners and not enemies. There is nothing comparable between Japan and Korea/China. The best example that comes to mind would be ASEAN+3 but this is only a recent thing and has so far been marred by the competition between Japan and China to become the “leader” by offering free trade agreements. There is also the matter of linked transport that has become almost seamless thanks to the fast train and free movement of people within the EU.

There are also historical factors at play and mostly a historical sense of superiority. Europe has changed it border many many times in the last few hundred years and alliances were frequently cemented through marriage, blurring the lines of ancestry and ethnicity. Contrast to the importance Korea and Japan place on ethnic homogenity. Historically, Koreans have thought themselves superior to Japan and vice versa. Europeans, though nationalistic do not claim such purity of ethnicity. Indeed, the aberration was the Third Reich which promoted racial cleansing at which they were unsuccessful.

The tribunal to prosecute Japanese war criminals from what I’ve read was a bit of a farce. On top of that, US efforts to boost Japan so that it could be an ally against communism led to many of the old guard being released from gaol and given government positions again. Needless to say, the Koreans and Chinese probably had not changed their opinion of these “war criminals” once there were released and put back in positions of power. Not to mention the US policy to absolve the Emperor of any responsibility. Nuremberg was a different story and though many SS and German officials probably slunk back into society to hide and more fled to various countries, there was no question of putting any back into the new German government. Germany experienced a true changing of the guard that was not replicated in Japan. Today the Japanese still manage to outrage their neighbours by visiting the Yasukuni shrine while Germany has a Jewish Museum and recently held memorials for the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

And lastly is the matter of alliances and the balance of power. China and Japan are historical rivals over the balance of power in Asia. Today, Japan is allied with the US and China remains a huge influence in the region. They are still competing for regional dominance. In the global power structure, Europe is competing with the US to balance power. This prompts an alliance between France and Germany to balance US and Britain rather than to compete against each other. This is possibly made even less antagonistic than relations in Asia because US is also part of NATO and Britain is a key member of the EU. So even though they are perhaps standing against US in some areas, they are cooperating in other and still remain allies. China, Korea, and Japan have no such web of institutions and alliances to hold them together.

In sum, there is no hope for Asia. Japan, China and Korea will always be bickering and unproductive because due to historical and social differences compounded by an absence of institutional alliances designed to promote common cultural, economic, political and security interests. And the problem will only get worse as the next generation comes to power due to divergent teachings in their respective countries.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui