The rise and fall of a nation depends on how industrious its citizens are, but even more so upon that nation’s ability to reflect on how to improve.
The Japanese are often praised for their strong work ethic, diligence, high standards of hygiene and strict observance of the social order. The blows to Japan’s economy — from the bursting of their economic bubble of the 1980s, to the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008, to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster last year — have allowed politicians at the far right of the political spectrum to once again come to the forefront of Japanese politics.
Just as the deep wounds of World War II were finally healing, the Japanese government poured salt on them, nationalizing the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) by buying three of the five key islets from their private owner.
The Diaoyutai island chain is one of the world’s prime fishing areas and also holds an abundance of oil reserves, but when the US transferred administration of the islands to Japan in 1971, their ownership became a major point of contention between Japan, the Republic of China (ROC) and China. Japan’s recent nationalization of the Diaoyutais coincided with the 81st anniversary of the “Mukden Incident,” which started the Japanese invasion of Manchuria on Sept. 18, 1931. This evoked memories of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in which the Japanese murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese — a historical tragedy for Chinese across the globe.
Although Japan has made considerable progress over the past few decades, its people still have a long way to go in their understanding of historical events. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said last week that he had underestimated the Chinese reaction to Japan’s nationalizing of the Diaoyutais. However, the Japanese government has had much time since April to decide whether it would take a more benevolent approach or take a peremptory, hegemonic stance, and it is quite clear that extreme right-wing factions within the Japanese government have abandoned the former.
When the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II, it was the ROC government that allowed all Japanese expatriates living in China at the time to safely return home. Given the circumstances, the legal arguments and simple reasoning, as well as the proximity of the Diaoyutais to Taiwan, it makes more sense for the Japanese to prioritize Taiwan in having direct talks with representatives of the ROC.
The Taiwanese did all they could to help Japan in the aftermath of last year’s disaster — offering help and sending donations. In other words, they believed that people have to work together in the face of natural disasters. It is regrettable that in recent years the Japanese have chosen to arrest, fine and even jail our fishermen without notifying the Taiwanese authorities in advance.
One must be sensitive and respectful when trying to understand the historical background, culture, achievements and failings of a nation when appreciating the strengths of that nation in order to improve your own. The strong-man ideologies and bellicose posturing of the current crop of political leaders in Japan are making it harder for respected individuals who hold more humanitarian ideals to be heard.
Recall historian Arnold Toynbee’s theory of the cyclical nature of history, that civilizations rise, but also fall. The future of the entire Japanese nation depends on whether the Japanese come to realize this and what they will do about it.
King Chwan-Chuen is a professor at the Institute of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health.
Translated by Kyle Jeffcoat