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When you drink water remember the source…

JapanA few years ago my Korean Taekwondo master, with another American and his very young Korean teacher in the room, spoke to me in perfect Japanese. He proceeded to tell me that I should be wary as there was conflict between the two men. Then he winked and told me, again in Japanese, not to reveal the extent of his linguistic skills to anyone else. He had known for years prior to this day that I was fluent in Japanese, but had remained silent.

A day or two after his disclosure I asked him why he had kept it such a secret. He explained to me that to speak Japanese was to call to mind the days of his youth and the Japanese occupation of Korea. He had been forced to abandon his family identity by taking a Japanese name, forbidden to study Korean martial arts, and was witness to the arrogance and brutality of the Imperial army. I guessed his motive in revealing his secret to me came out of the then daily news on the continued Sino-Japanese-Korean animosities at that time: This was the oblique way a proud, accomplished man could release some long-held pain.

It was not long after our talk that he and another icon in Taekwondo encountered a man in an elevator in a Seoul hotel. The man asked, in his native Japanese, if they were also from Japan. The two men, ordinarily gentle and soft-spoken, emerged from the elevator while the visiting businessman remained aboard, having been rendered unconscious.

And only a week after the elevator event, Korea demolished an extraordinarily beautiful building in Seoul that had been erected during the occupation by the Imperial army. The Koreans did not just tear it down: they smashed each brick individually. The enormous collective pain of a nation had bled into every emotionally permeable membrane.

Japan has made half-hearted attempts to heal a divided Pacific rim community that still views Japan as unrepentant and inexorably tied to its militaristic past. Haruki Wada’s Asian Women’s Fund for comfort women, sexually used and abused by Japanese soldiers, is one of Tokyo’s most telling gestures.

The fund basically was meant to give the appearance of an apology without angering a large segment of Japan that viewed restitution as a loss of national face; hence, disgraceful.

fund did do some good for a fraction of the tens of thousands affected. A few hundred women from Taiwan, the Philippines and elsewhere received about $16,000 US Dollars from the fund (not the government) and a personal (not official) apology from the Japanese Prime Minister. Chinese women in the mainland received nothing as Beijing refused to set up an official authentication system for the victims. Other money from a relatively tiny fund went to hospital bills, retirement homes and medical facilities that benefited some women.

The latest round of reconciliation talks between Beijing and Tokyo are bound to evoke old memories for many in Korea, China, Taiwan and the Phillipines again. And forgiveness is unlikely to be forthcoming as long as the guilty party is still asking others to apologize or intervene on its behalf.

Beijing has been using water analogies throughout this process: China has called for the melting of ice and building a bridge over a sea of peace between the two countries. But, I doubt there will be much water flowing under non-existent metaphorical bridges until the leadership of Japan claims ownership for a destructive past, corrects false and state sponsored historical teachings, and begins tending to the living souls of its neighbors instead of conjuring the spirits of atrocity via visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

A Chinese Proverb: 饮水思源 (When you drink water remember the source)

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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “When you drink water remember the source…”

  1. tomon Apr 13th 2007 at 12:03 pm

    Well written as always. I am baffled as to why the Japanese have not tried to heal old wounds earlier.

  2. daveon Apr 13th 2007 at 12:42 pm

    It’s rare that I disagree with onemanbandwidth, but I do in this case on several points.

    Japan has paid ‘unofficial’ war reparations to China in the form of low interest development loans. For many years, Japan was the top giver to China. Only during times when Beijing did nuclear testing or the incident in the square did Japan cease aid for a period of time.

    Additionally, Japan has ‘officially’ apologized on many occasions.

    And the textbooks would be used by less than 1% of students.,6903,1461648,00.html

    I’m not sure what more a country can do. There will always be historians who try to distort history. These people exist in Japan, China, and the U.S. There will always be individuals who hate a particular class of people. These people exist in Japan, China, and the U.S.

    At the end of the day, what troubles me most is not the need for another apology or the rewriting of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. What troubles me most is the billions of dollars in aid China has accepted while continuing to demonize the giver.

    On a final point, the visits to Yasukuni Shrine do trouble me. Yet, I’m not sure how to pay respects to the over 2 million souls that are not war criminals that are remembered there.

  3. Truffleson Apr 13th 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Germany and France achieved reconciliation coz they were both destroyed and in pain after the WWII…..

    I hope Japan and China will follow this way

  4. Markon Apr 14th 2007 at 1:44 am

    Yes, terrible things happened… 65 years ago. There comes a point when we must let history be history. In Taiwan, these old hatreds have mostly died down. The mainland Chinese, and especially Korean custom of fanning the flames of hatred regularly for political reasons is doing far more harm than good in the world.

    As a side note, I’m very surprised that you, as someone who spent the time to become fluent in Japanese, would have this view point. Surely, you must have encountered the other side of the argument during your studies. Assaulting businessmen for crimes that happened before they were even born is just barbaric. Nationalistic hatred doesn’t help anyone.

  5. adminon Apr 14th 2007 at 7:11 am

    Thanks Dave…I always appreciate your view on things….

    I think therein lies the rub: “Unofficial”….Japan handing off responsibiliy is akin to getting your wife to tell your neighbors you are sorry for running over their child in the driveway.

    I don’t find 1% an acceptable level of state approved racism in textbooks. Germany outlawed such behavior long ago. Is it really OK to ill inform 1% of Japan’s impressionable minds? We would be in court for such behavior in the U.S. and our desciminatory business would soon be terminated or rightfully minority litigant owned/controlled. Yep, historians worldwide distort reality, but few get their governments to fund and disitribute their madness.

    The most troubling part of the Yasukuni visits us that they are blatantly official state visits. Any time a president or prime minister attends a national monument or shrine it makes the news. How insensitive it is to keep grinding salt into the wounds of a lot of allied, Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean ,and Fillipino war veterans and scores of comfort women (willing participants according to Abe only a few weeks ago) who are still alive and suffering?

    Japan’s loans to China pale in comparison to the reparations paid by Germany to the victims of the holocaust.


    So, let’s get rid of the monuments at Dachau, Hiroshima, Andersonville, Ludlow, Saigon (war crimes museum), the Washington Holocaust Museum and elsewhere? No. And the chief difference between the aforementioned references and anything Japanese is that the players involved owned up to their atrocities and made serious personal attempts at reconciliation. There is little in the consciousness of westerners about the estimated 30 million lives obliterated by Japanese atrocities during their Pacific reign of terror. And the Japanese, be they aged participants or descendants, are complicit in minimizing the horror of their actions. Learn from history, don’t cover it up.

    My daughter is half Japanese, but will never be a fully accepted member of that society. They still actively discriminate against women, foreigners, aged people and descendants of certain Japanese blood lines (Burakamin)….They are a deeply ethnocentric people still powerfully tied to the worst of their past. Current laws prohibit foreigners from holding hundreds of jobs in Japan and it is not for national security. They are a poster society for ethnic purity. Too, there are millions of Japanese calling for a revision in their constitution to restore military war powers and hundreds of students and citizens I have interviewed still believe that WWII was honorable and justified and that the invasion of Pearl Harbor was a necessary, and NOT regrettable, part of Japanese self-preservation.

    The ground water here is still being poisoned by tons of chemical munitions that were buried by Imperial forces. It is hard to say goodbye to memories when Japan is JUST getting around to cleaning up some of the mess.

    In a recent study 80% of teenagers polled in Beijing said that “strongly disliked” or “hated” the Japanese. I don’t think things are close to being done with in the minds of the common citizen. And if Beijing is actively fueling anti-Japanese sentiment, it is wrong, but it means something is broken and needs to be fixed. Japan has long held the tools needed to repair relations and has half-heartily used them if at all. And even Abe, as I said above, tried to conjure the illusion that 200,000 plus women were willing sexual partners for the Japanese during WWII. That doesn’t do much for putting history Imperial Japan in the rear-view mirror….

    I did not assail any ‘businessmen”…Though, like IBM, Bayer, Coke and others who profiteered in the European Theatre, Japanese Daibutsus, as corporate entities, should never be absolved of genocide and human rights crimes. If they were involved, unless they make full restitution for their involvement, they should be held accountable for their crimes. There is no statute of limitation on murder. Likewise, Japan should not be pardoned until it has made sincere, discernible efforts to rebuke AND atone for its actions.

  6. Pandapassporton May 3rd 2007 at 1:22 am

    Quote from admin:
    “They still actively discriminate against women, foreigners, aged people and descendants of certain Japanese blood lines (Burakamin)….They are a deeply ethnocentric people still powerfully tied to the worst of their past. Current laws prohibit foreigners from holding hundreds of jobs in Japan and it is not for national security. They are a poster society for ethnic purity.”

    I’d be careful about your phrasing, for fear you might be generalizing, or applying the characteristics of some to the whole — as I find some in China do too often.

    Interesting post though.
    But I’m afraid I gotta disagree pretty emphatically on this one.

  7. adminon May 3rd 2007 at 2:49 am


    it is the LAW in Japan than gaijin cannot hold HUNDREDS of jobs. Give me a reasonable explanation and I will retract that part of the post.

    As with any culture there are a number of good people: The lawyers that have been fighting on behalf of Chinese slave laborers, kidnapped and sent to Japan during the war, are Japanese based out of Hong Kong. I applaud them, but as the exception to the rule.

    Read any want-ads section of a any major Japanese newspaper and you will find recruitment clearly stating that the applicant must be male and below the age of 35. There are no reasonable laws protecting women or older citizens in Japan. When it is NATIONAL policy, unchallenged by the majority, to actively discriminate against others the generalizations are warranted.

    I know mixed race children who have spent their entire school lives hiding in the nurse’s office (most are certified teachers) for fear of unchecked IJIME, the word for brutality visited on those who are simply different. It is not isolated violence and it is not being properly dealt with by local or national authorities.

    Most cities still have no laws prohibiting sex with minors (Tokyo only did so under duress in the late 90’s) and many minority children are victims. To avoid prosecution in blatant rape, all the accuser has to do is offer money to the family that generally accepts to avoid further humiliation and the police drop any further investigation.

    Recent studies estimate that 70-80% of crimes allegedly committed by foreigners are prosecuted and won due to beatings or coerced confessions after months of brutal solitary confinement awaiting trial. And then foreigners are sent to foreigner-only prisons where the conditions are so vile and draconian that the Japanese will not even allow the IRC to insepect them.

    I have a great love of many things Japanese, as I know you do, my daughter among them. But, I take issue with many nationally accepted patterns of behavior that we (America) refuse to challenge because of Japan’s importance to us as a trade and military partner.

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