HONG KONGHistory is a two-edged sword. Almost 60 years after the 35-year Japanese
occupation of Korea, the issue of collaboration with the Japanese is roiling
South Korean politics and bringing some embarrassing reminders. But it is not
just Koreans who could benefit from looking back at what actually happened in
Asia before and during the Pacific war, rather than pretending that all were
part of heroic struggles against the Japanese.
In South Korea, nationalism is especially
directed at Japan, whose crimes as occupier are forever being recalled. A leader
of the governing Uri party has had to quit for allegedly trying to cover up the
fact that his father had served in the Japanese military police.
This fracas has served as a reminder,
however, that the relationship was always ambiguous. Japan was a harsh colonizer
but also brought education, railways and industry. So it was not surprising that
an ambitious Park Chung Hee assumed a Japanese name and graduated from a
Japanese military academy in Manchuria in 1944. As President Park, his
subsequent pivotal contribution to South Korean modernization is revered. So
could the great Korean patriot have also been a collaborator? History says he
China surpasses Korea when it comes to
reminders of the war and Japanese brutality. Beijing never loses an opportunity
to remind Chinese people of the Nanjing massacre and complain about lack of
Japanese contrition. Meanwhile China not only prefers to forget that the
Communist Party subsequently inflicted even greater misery on the Chinese people
but also likes to forget the extent of Chinese collaboration with Japan.
The West is also fond of accusing Japan
of not being contrite. But Asians could well ask why Europe and the United
States have never apologized for their imperialism in the region. European and
American rule was much less harsh than Japan's, but it lasted longer.
In Asia, little about the Pacific war is
black and white. Chinese communities in Southeast Asia were generally fiercely
anti-Japanese and suffered accordingly during the occupation. But much of Asia
did see the Japanese, initially at least, either as liberators or no worse than
the previous rulers.
A significant part of the
ever-opportunistic Philippine elite did not oppose the new occupier, and
President Ferdinand Marcos later invented a role as an anti-Japan guerrilla
fighter. President Cory Aquino's father-in-law was wartime ambassador to Tokyo
under Japan's collaborator president, J.P. Laurel, whose son Salvador later
became Aquino's vice president.
In Indonesia, a young Suharto served in
the Dutch and Japanese forces before joining the independence struggle.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand not only officially sided with Japan for a
while but used this alliance to grab back parts of Malaya, Burma and Cambodia,
which it had lost to the European empires. It had to return these in 1945. In
Malaya, the Japanese occupation increased tensions between Chinese and Malays,
who had a more neutral view of the Japanese. After the Japanese surrendered,
many Malays accused of collaboration were killed. Even in mainly Chinese
Singapore, working for the Japanese was unavoidable. Lee Kuan Yew, later the
founder of modern Singapore, learned the language and worked for Japan's
Taiwan, meanwhile, was little touched by
the Pacific war and in many ways benefited from its 50 years of Japanese rule,
which brought education and infrastructure. That experience laid the groundwork
for Taiwan's subsequent success, and helps explain why its view of Japan is
profoundly different from China's and has fueled Taiwan separatism.
Given the histories of Taiwan and
Singapore, it was remarkable last weekend to hear Singapore's new prime
minister, Lee Hsien Loong - Lee Kuan Yew's son - lecturing Taiwan on the dangers
of aspiring to independence. Singapore would not recognize any such claim, he
said. Taiwan's people might like to remind the younger Lee how fortunate it was
in 1965 that Malaysia, acknowledging the wishes of the majority led by Lee Kuan
Yew, allowed Singapore to secede without a fight. Singapore was part of the
Johore sultanate for longer than Taiwan was part of China, so for many
Malaysians, the 1965 separation remains a matter for regret - and possible
History may not teach us much about the
future or how to act in the present. But its perspective can be a useful
antidote to propaganda based on ideological myths - especially at a time when
Asian alliances and rivalries, driven by national and personal interests that
have changed since the end of the cold war, are again in flux.