For decades, disagreements over regional history have been a blight on diplomacy between Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul.
Now, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye has revived a proposal aimed at soothing the long-running row over the region’s history: a shared syllabus of northeast Asian history, to be used as the basis for teaching in all three countries.
Yet while academics view the idea as desirable in principle, most also dismiss it as unfeasible for the foreseeable future – reflecting a continuing deterioration in regional relations, with festering historical grudges at the core.
Japanese school history books have long been seen by South Korean and Chinese critics as emblematic of efforts to downplay atrocities during Japan’s imperial expansion. Politicians in Seoul complain of a failure to address the wartime sexual enslavement of thousands of Korean women, while Beijing has railed at suggestions that Japan occupied Manchuria in response to Chinese provocations.
The historical grievances have intensified since the election last year of the nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose provocative remarks have included questioning the notion that Japan truly “invaded” Asian countries such as China and Korea.
In her proposal for a shared history syllabus, unveiled at a conference last week in Seoul, Ms Park cited precedents set by Germany, France and Poland. “We may see the removal of the wall of historical problems, which is the seed of conflict and distrust,” she said.
Japanese education minister Hakubun Shimomura – widely seen as one of Mr Abe’s more rightwing cabinet members – said he “openly welcomed” the suggestion. He added that he hoped it could serve as a catalyst for high-level talks between the three governments, something Mr Abe’s administration has been seeking with little success. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was more cautious, stressing the need for Japan to “adjust its attitude and gain the trust of its Asian neighbours”.
Ms Park’s spokeswoman presents the proposal as part of her drive for a “northeast Asian peace and co-operation initiative” – but in fact politicians and scholars from the three countries have been toying with this idea for years.
In 1997, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to set up a joint committee of historians whose research could form the basis for educational texts – but the body’s work over the ensuing years “just confirmed how deep are the differences between the historical views of the two peoples”, says Lee Gil-sang, a professor at the Academy of Korean Studies in Seoul.
After four years of work, a 2010 report by a similar Sino-Japanese body exposed a rift over Japan’s historical claim to the Okinawa island group – a debate with implications for the countries’ fierce dispute over the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China.
“It is urgent and necessary to have [a joint history] book considering the growing territorial disputes,” says Su Zhiliang, a professor at Shanghai Normal University who edits Chinese history textbooks.
While officially sponsored efforts have made limited headway, private initiatives have borne more fruit. A group of Chinese, Japanese and South Korean historians jointly produced a history book in 2007, and a second such project was published in all three countries last year. Yet neither text was embraced by any of the three countries’ school authorities.
“The main focus of history teaching in this region is to promote patriotism,” says Mr Lee.
While Japan’s critics urge it to take more account of its neighbours’ grievances, its conservative politicians have been fighting since the 1980s to excise from students’ textbooks what they see as “masochistic” references to Japan’s wartime behaviour.
Earlier this year, a committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic party suggested a revision to a 1982 edict that textbooks should “show understanding” when discussing historical events involving neighbouring countries.
Meanwhile, Chinese and South Korean textbooks continue to portray Japanese aggression in unflinching terms. One book used by some Chinese middle school students condemns the “savage slaughter” carried out by Japanese forces in Nanjing in 1937, and sets a homework assignment of interviewing elderly neighbours or relatives on “what kind of crimes the Japanese intruders did”.
In South Korea, outrage was provoked in August when the government approved a new school textbook that cast in a positive light some economic policies of the Japanese colonial government during its 35-year occupation of Korea. After a public outcry, the ministry of education said the book’s authors must correct 251 errors before it could be cleared for use in schools.
Additional reporting by Zhang Yan in Shanghai
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