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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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