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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 April 2005, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
The row over Japan's past and future
William Horsley
By William Horsley
BBC News, Tokyo

Japan's decision to approve new school textbooks, criticised by some for glossing over the country's wartime record, have promoted demonstrations in several Chinese cities. But as William Horsley discovers the row between the two countries concerns the future as well as the past.

Yasukuni Shrine
Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the shrine were criticised by China
The most striking thing about the Yasukuni Shrine is its massive and forbidding black "torii" gate.

A distinctive symbol of the Shinto religion, a gaunt silhouette beneath which, on a bright spring day, I watched men and women of all ages streaming in to pay their respects to ancestors, or to admire the enchanting display of cherry blossoms on the tree-lined avenue.

Each family group would pause, shut their eyes and pray in front of the open-plan wooden building where the souls of two-and-a-half-million Japanese war dead are enshrined.

Those war dead include Hideki Tojo, Japan's wartime prime minister who was later hanged with a dozen other top leaders as a war criminal.

Japan's present leader, Junichiro Koizumi has made regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine in spite of furious complaints from China, South Korea and other neighbouring countries that in doing so he was condoning Japan's aggressive war in the 1930s and 1940s.

And now, the news from China is bad, very bad.

Demonstrations

Chinese demonstrators burn a Japanese flag
Demonstrations over the text-books have extended to South Korea
Last weekend an angry crowd gathered in Beijing to throw stones at the Japanese embassy.

In other cities young people have attacked Japanese shops and businesses.

In Shanghai two Japanese students were badly beaten up in a restaurant.

Chinese leaders say Japan will not deserve a permanent seat on the UN Security Council until it faces up honestly to its wartime misdeeds.

An e-mail doing the rounds in China calls for a mass boycott of Japanese goods. "Send this on to other Chinese people", the message says, "and we won't need to go to war!"

History

This stream of invective against the Japanese is not new.

Some Asia watchers see it largely as a device by Chinese leaders to extract more Japanese aid or divert attention from their own failings.

It is alarmingly reminiscent of the age of the Communist Red Guards.

The Yasukuni Shrine remains a potent symbol of how the Japanese, intoxicated by fascism and coerced by military rule, once collectively lost their reason and were fed fantastic myths, of racial superiority and the Emperor's divinity
But on this trip to Japan I could not avoid the conclusion that a new mood of nationalism has also begun to take hold in this country which has been publicly devoted to peace and economic prosperity for so long.

One sign is the Japanese authorities' approval of several new school history textbooks written by known right-wing scholars.

One book which has angered the Chinese failed to make any assessment of the number of Chinese civilians killed in the infamous Rape of Nanjing.

The internationally accepted view is that hundreds of thousands died in an orgy of sexual violence and killing by Japanese troops.

And Japan's largest national newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, in what I take to be blatant disregard for the known facts, has called on its readers to celebrate, because the new textbooks have cut out all mention of one of the greatest of all the humiliations inflicted by Imperial Japan on its neighbours: the use of large numbers of women in conquered Asian countries as sex slaves for the Japanese army.

It was right to set the record straight, I read, because the accusations "had been shown to be untrue".

Surely I thought modern Japan could not give in to the poison of such deceit and hypocrisy ever again.

The Yasukuni Shrine remains a potent symbol of how the Japanese, intoxicated by fascism and coerced by military rule, once collectively lost their reason and were fed fantastic myths, of racial superiority and the Emperor's divinity.

'Bitter dispute'

I had come to see the recently expanded Yasukuni museum of Japanese history.

For 100 years Japan has been number one in Asia. Now China, with 10 times Japan's population, is in a hurry to take over that role
I found that its 18 galleries of high-quality displays, maps and texts amount to a lavish and expensive re-write of the history of Japan's imperial age, to show the Japanese as innocent victims of a conspiracy by the Western colonial powers, to thwart Japan's ambition to lead East Asia and force Japan into war.

By this account annexing Korea, setting up a puppet regime in Manchukuo, the step by step takeover of China, each was done in self-defence, aiming only to bring peace.

As for Nanjing, I found no mention of Japanese soldiers killing civilians.

Instead, these words: "The Chinese were soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace."

However you look at it, that will not do as a record of what happened.

By chance I came across this testimony of a Japanese army veteran who was there.

"No matter how young or old, none of the women we rounded up could escape being raped. Each one was allocated to 15 or 20 soldiers for sexual intercourse and abuse."

Afterwards "we always stabbed them and killed them. Because dead bodies don't talk."

The bitter dispute now raging between Japan and China is both about setting the record straight and about a struggle for power.

For 100 years Japan has been number one in Asia.

Now China, with 10 times Japan's population, is in a hurry to take over that role.

And as with highly-geared racing cars sharing the same circuit, it is the moment of overtaking that brings the greatest risk of a crash.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 16 April, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO
Japan's controversial shrine
07 Apr 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Q&A: China and Japan's troubled ties
14 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Scarred by history: The Rape of Nanjing
11 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Textbook row stirs Japanese concern
13 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
China warns against Japan rallies
15 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Japan
20 Mar 05 |  Country profiles

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