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New Wave Of Angry Nationalism In Asia

by Tim Shorrock

Behind China's Anti-Japan Riots

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Public opinion, not only the power of government, is driving the emergence of an angry nationalism in Northeast Asia, adding instability to a region nervous about North Korea's nuclear intentions, China's rise to near-superpower status and Japan's continued refusal to own up to its wartime past.

That is the view of Fujiwara Kiichi, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo who has written extensively about the many ways that World War II is remembered in Asia. He also co-authored a textbook on civics for the Japanese government's controversial education program, which has been denounced throughout the region for whitewashing Japanese actions during the war.

Particularly in South Korea and China, where recent anti-Japanese protests have caused diplomatic strains with Tokyo, "we see a much larger role for public opinion rather than simple directives from government," Kiichi told a recent Washington seminar on Asian nationalism sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

From the end of the Second World War to the recent past, Kiichi argued, Chinese and South Korean governments frequently invoked the ideology of nationalism to settle specific grievances with Japan -- usually over territory -- and establish their own political legitimacy.

During the 1950s, for instance, Seoul clashed with Tokyo over fishing rights near the island of Dokto in the sea dividing the Korean Peninsula from Japan. And for most of its post-war history, the Communist Party in Beijing used anti-Japanese sentiment as the "linchpin" in its drive to establish political legitimacy.

But in both countries, those conflicts were generated by what Kiichi called "pragmatic" disagreements over territory and resources, which had little resonance with their respective publics at the time. As recent events attest, however, the situation has changed, and the general populace is very much involved.

During the month of April, thousands of South Koreans took to the streets to denounce a decision by Japan's Shimane Prefecture to claim Dokto as part of its territory. That same month, the publication in Tokyo of new textbooks that many Asians believe brush over Japan's brutal occupations of China and Korea generated large-scale protests in both countries.

The demonstrations were particularly vehement in China, where police in Beijing stood by while angry crowds pelted the Japanese Embassy with rocks and shouted, "stop distorting history." Chinese citizens have also denounced a proposal, supported by the United States, to give Japan a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's insistence on visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead -- along with many considered war criminals -- are buried has added to the anger.

But in contrast to the earlier outbursts of nationalism, "this time, many demonstrations (were) not following government directives," said Kiichi.

Indeed, the degeneration in relations between three key countries in Asia has alarmed some U.S. leaders and politicians, who view South Korea, Japan and China as critical to East Asian economic and political stability.

"While the sources of these tensions are long-standing and multi-faceted, the current set of problems appears to have developed or reignited an intensity that should be deeply concerning to all parties," U.S. Representative James Leach, the chairman of a House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, stated in a May 31 speech to a Washington conference on Korea.

Leach continued: "It is impressive to reflect upon the fact that at every turn in the last century the world has underestimated the power of nationalism." The recent incidents in Korea and Japan, he added, are expressions of "the desire of people to carve their own destiny, to make their own mistakes."

In contrast to the recent past, the current tensions over the legacy of World War II are beginning to strike a public chord in Japan.

After the riot at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, a wave of anger swept Japan.

According to a mid-May poll of 1,880 Japanese conducted by the Yomiuri Shinbun, more than 90 percent indicated dissatisfaction with China's refusal to apologise or compensate Japan for any damage during the riot. Moreover, 'The New York Times' reported, 85 percent said Koizumi should demand an apology and compensation, while 48 percent supported his visits to the shrine.

Taniguchi Tomohiko, a journalist and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that many Asians are uncomfortable with Japanese foreign policy, particularly its "co-sponsorship of U.S. hegemony in the Pacific" and the support of some Japanese politicians for Taiwanese independence.

"What could be more troubling to China than Japanese support for Taiwan?" he asked.

In late May, many Japanese were pleased to hear their foreign minister, Nubtaka Machimaru, denounce Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi after she abruptly cancelled a meeting with Koizumi to protest his visits to the shrine. People developed a "crazy satisfaction" over these statements, said Kiichi.

"The narrative of the victim we find so easily in Korea and China we also find easily in Japan," he added. These nationalist sentiments, in turn, "work as mirror images and reinforce each other."

The danger, Kiichi argued, is that future policies in the three countries might soon be based on "crude prejudices" rather than sound analysis.

One possible cure to the rise of nationalism, the academic suggested, would be for Japanese prime ministers to stop visiting Yasukuni. Rather than use that site as the national memorial to World War II, Japan should build a monument to honour all the war dead, including the millions of Koreans and Chinese who died, said Kiichi.

Such a monument already exists in the coastal city of Kamakura, where it marks the Mongol invasion of Japan in the 12th century, and in Okinawa, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the last war. In both places, all the victims of these wars -- Mongol, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and American -- are remembered. "This would be acceptable to the Japanese public," concluded Kiichi.

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Albion Monitor June 2, 2005 (

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