Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso needs a history lesson.
His remarks yesterday that Japan is responsible for Taiwan's high level of education are a perfect example of why the Koizumi administration has such difficulties in dealing with its neighbors.
"Thanks to the significant improvement in educational standards and literacy, Taiwan is now a country with a very high education level and keeps up with the current era," Aso said.
Now, it is a matter of record that Japan established and developed much of Taiwan's infrastructure during the 50 years that it ruled the island as a colony. But the colonial legacy of Imperial Japan in Taiwan goes far beyond the construction of schools, factories and railroads.
The complex colonial relationship is easily illustrated. The Treaty of Shimonoseki's cession of Taiwan to Japan in 1895 was not universally welcomed anywhere. Few in Japan or Taiwan are likely aware that during the initial years of imperial occupation, the bulk of the Japanese public was in favor of abandoning Taiwan as a colonial project. This was because of the huge economic and military cost of occupying and pacifying the island, as the Japanese statesman Goto Shimpei noted in 1921. Some even considered selling it back to China. Taiwan was eventually turned into a self-sufficient and profitable colony, but it was not through the dint of hard work by the Japanese alone.
Taiwanese people who lived during the Japanese colonial days often have mixed feelings of nostalgia and bitterness. This is natural. Undoubtedly there were many good things that the Japanese contributed to Taiwan's development as a nation.
But there was also, of course, the dark side of imperialism: the seizure of lands and properties by the authorities; the slaughter of Aborigines and others who resisted Japanese rule; the attempts to impose an alien culture and values on a populace that was not always willing to be brainwashed; and the host of problems and conflicts that are the inheritance of conquest.
In the end, the Japanese did not embark on their colonial adventure because of some idealistic mission civilisatrice -- although there were certainly ideologues who came to Taiwan with the desire to help. Simply put, the record of Japanese colonialism in Taiwan, as on the Korean Peninsula, is complex and does not yield to facile interpretation. And this is why Aso does a disservice to himself and his country when he arrogantly proclaims that Taiwan's relatively advanced economy, education system and society are beholden to Japan's munificence.
This newspaper has in the past decried the xenophobic ultra-nationalists in China and elsewhere who seek to exploit the historic crimes of Imperial Japan for their own ends. Tokyo deserves respect and support as the capital of a liberal democratic state whose people enjoy substantial wealth and a degree of individual liberty far beyond that in most countries.
Still, like any other country, Japan is not perfect. Although it should not be blamed for the choices its leaders and people made decades ago, neither should Tokyo have the temerity to ignore the awful lessons of the past.
Aso's comments were nothing to protest in the streets about. But they exhibit a lack of historical awareness -- or even worse, blatant revisionism -- that no thinking person can defend. What Tokyo ought to consider is the fact that such callous and unthinking comments made by its politicians break down the goodwill of those who are otherwise its friends.