Thursday, April 14, 2005

On the Uses of History I

When I was about seventeen, I read the novel "Trinity", by Leon Uris, and for a period that must have lasted about two months, I decided that people I knew with English - sounding surnames were my enemies. (My grandparents had come over from Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising). Now, when my Geometry teacher, Jonathan Butler, scolded me for not studying, I saw it clearly as yet another in a string of humiliations suffered by my people, going back all the way to wicked Elizabeth herself. I never did share my heightened historical consciousness with my grandmother. Even at seventeen, I would have flushed deep crimson had she known, like getting caught masturbating. Come to think of it, that's exactly what it was. It felt good. Then I got over it.

Frank Ching has a column in Wednesday's China Post in which he articulates the Chinese position that the Japanese have not apologized for World War II atrocities often enough, or sincerely enough:
In 1972, when Japan and China normalized relations, the communique they issued said: 'The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself.' There is no word of apology. And the death and destruction wrought upon millions of people in China is described as simply 'serious damage.'"

What Ching doesn't include is that when Prime Minister Tanaka tried to apologize personally to Mao on behalf of Japan, Mao resisted. He said the Japanese invasion had actually been helpful, because it had enabled him to win his civil war with the KMT. But what did Mao, who'd actually fought the Japanese, know about it, compared to the twenty-somethings marching in the streets today, their faces contorted in rage?

They may have later turned into monsters who made war on Chinese culture, but Mao's generation of Communist leaders had actually fought and suffered with the peasants during the period of Japanese occupation. The 1972 meeting was characterized by differences over wording - the Japanese said the war had caused "trouble", the Chinese insisted on "disaster - but there is no indication that the Chinese veterans of the Chinese-Japanese War felt that these wounds would not heal over time. "The communique they issued" presumably was a compromise signed by both parties. Now, a new generation comes along and, after thirty years of positive relations based on that communique, suggests that their moral indignation over the historical events is so much greater than that of Mao's generation that they are willing to endanger the entire relationship. One wonders if it occurs to them that they might not have the moral standing to do so.