HOW HE SEES IT Rivalries hinder Asian commity

Sometimes the past has its uses. In East Asia events from decades ago, even centuries ago, are kept alive in the minds of many people.
At the top of the list is Japan's empire building, from its repressive colonization of Korea to the bloody invasion of China. In Chinese eyes, Japan fails to acknowledge, much less apologize for, the crimes committed by Japanese troops 70 years ago.
There is truth to that charge. But China is also not in much hurry for reconciliation. The past is convenient leverage for China in its rivalry with its powerful neighbor.
That was evident last month when China's President Hu Jintao met Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Chile. It was the first meeting between the two men in more than a year. Koizumi was angling for an invitation to visit China, where he has been effectively barred since taking office in April 2001.
Instead the Chinese president harped on Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the souls of Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals. Visits to the shrine, castigated as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression, must first cease, he told the Japanese leader.
Koizumi is not the first Japanese premier to visit Yasukuni but he does so regularly and defiantly. While many Japanese oppose it, Koizumi gains politically from standing up to Chinese pressure.
Moreover, Japanese officials see the Chinese playing a cynical game, spurring Chinese nationalism to replace the fading communist ideology. And it allows Beijing to deflect attention from its own pushy behavior.
Last August, Chinese fans shouted harsh anti-Japanese slogans at an Asian Cup soccer final. The two countries have been sparring over Chinese oil and gas exploration in offshore waters both claim. In early November, the Japanese spotted and chased a Chinese nuclear submarine that entered their territorial waters.
Japanese feelings toward China are mixed. China's rapid growth drives Japan's own economy. Japanese business leaders openly complain that Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni are hurting economic ties and urge him to stop.
But China's rise as a great power is increasingly seen as menacing. In an annual survey, taken in October, Japanese who saw China as a friend registered a record low of 38 percent, a significant drop from the previous poll.
The contrast with relations between Japan and Korea is revealing. Koreans share the Chinese sense that Japan is unwilling to face its history. The Japanese in turn held Koreans in contempt as a lesser people.
But the two countries have grappled in recent years with their past. They moved from what Stanford scholar Gi-Wook Shin calls the "thin reconciliation" between governments to "thick reconciliation," social exchanges that go deeper than lip service.
When Korean President Kim Dae-Jung visited in 1998, the Japanese for the first time issued a written apology for their colonial rule. When the Chinese president came a month later, Tokyo expressed "deep remorse" over the damage and suffering inflicted by its invasion of China. But China rejected the language as insufficiently apologetic.
Issues of history have not disappeared from the Japan-Korea agenda. When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun visited recently, he also raised Yasukuni, but he did not dwell on it.
The most dramatic change is the "thickening" of cultural ties -- symbolized these days by the huge popularity of Korean soap operas on Japanese television. Citizens groups from both countries cooperated to expose Japanese crimes such as the exploitation of Korean women as prostitutes for the Japanese imperial army.
Friendly feelings
That shows up in polling. Almost 60 percent of Japanese have friendly feelings toward Korea, the highest level since the annual survey was first carried out in 1978.
Meanwhile, Koreans are having their own problems with China's use of the past. Last year the Koreans were shocked by a Chinese government-funded project that collected data to prove that the ancient Korean kingdom that occupies what is now much of North Korea was actually a part of China. Korean attempts to get China to renounce such claims failed.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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