Thursday, April 28, 2005

Those who cannot remember the past … are sure to inflame those who do.

See all the bad feeling that has erupted over a few words in a Japanese textbook. Because they’re the wrong words. And words are important, as attested by the latest flare-up between China and Japan.

Not for the first time, Japanese textbooks downplay atrocities committed by the Emperor’s troops during the war between China and Japan in the 1930s. That conflict that became part of a world war in the 1940s, just as those who warned against ignoring aggressors had said it would.

But in today’s Japanese textbooks, what the world knows as the Rape of Nanking has become just an “incident.”

The Rape of Nanking was no incident. It was a six-week-long massacre. It was a historic European-style horror committed in that Chinese city by Japanese troops in 1937-38.

There has never been an accurate tally of the dead. Estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000. In six weeks. Many of the victims were executed by sword or bayonet, up close and hateful. This was the real face of what the Japanese called their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

This brutal piece of history is still vivid to the Chinese. But in Japan, it’s just an “incident,” a slight embarrassment, something to dismiss lightly as Just One of Those Things.

After all, there are so many “incidents” to overlook. The Rape of Nanking may only be the best known. The Bataan death march, Pearl Harbor and a few other “incidents” give Americans something in common with the Chinese on this score. And telling us to let bygones be bygones only adds to the deep rage those memories can still fuel.

Japan’s latest denial has provided China with the moral high ground in the long-running competition between the two countries. Hence the huge demonstrations in China against this rewriting of history. Unlike protests against the communist regime, these have at least the authorities’ tacit approval. For there’s nothing less spontaneous in a communist society than a spontaneous demonstration.

This old grievance against Japan makes a perfect stick with which to beat the Japanese when frictions develop over other issues — like who controls how much of the sea between Japan and China, and all the oil and gas deposits there.

For its own good, and not just its own material good, but for the good of its national soul, Japan needs to stop minimizing its old, but still painful, misdeeds.

Unlike Germany, Japan has never fully faced its past with all its atrocities and aggressions, which were certainly not limited to the Rape of Nanking. Some countries work through their pasts and become stronger for it. Others try to get around their past and wind up forever in thrall to it.

Now that Japan has begun to talk of seeking a seat on the U.N.’s Security Council, Chinese rage grows even greater. But Beijing might want to be careful about demanding moral purity as a qualification for U.N. honors. Communist China’s own record — including the massacre at Tiananmen Square and Mao Tse tung’s whole, long and bloody reign — isn’t exactly an exemplary one. China too has a past to be acknowledged.

There also is a lesson for Americans. Whenever some injustice from our past resurfaces, the surest reaction from some will be dismayingly like the Japanese to mentions of the Rape of Nanking — to dismiss, minimize or reduce it to an “incident.”

But our own resentful reaction to Japan’s moral amnesia should tell us something about the importance of re-examining the American past. That includes the treatment of interned Japanese citizens during the Second World War. And the long history of degradation of the American Indians. And the whole, peculiar institution of slavery, followed by the un-American, separate-but-unequal caste system known as segregation.

A great nation does not ignore its history, or whitewash it or pretend it never really happened, or brush it off as having occurred so long ago it should no longer matter. A great nation understands history cannot be skirted but must be faced.

A great nation seeks to work through its history, and resolve it, so its people will not remain forever vulnerable to the kind of questions that, if ignored, only fester.

A great nation understands, to repeat a truth that should not lose its force even if it has become a cliche, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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