New century for Korea-Japan relations
Scholars held an international conference under the theme “Multilateral Dialogue on History Education and Textbooks: East Asia, Europe and the Middle East” at Tokyo University on Oct. 22-23. They are history textbook experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and eight countries including South Korea.
The Seoul-based Northeast Asian History Foundation sponsored the event. The participants represented their respective country which was once a perpetrator or victim of aggression, occupation or colonial rule. Some nations are still suffering from such conflict.
In their theses presented to the conference, the participants introduced their experiences about how scholars of both aggressors and victimized countries worked together to publish common history textbooks and teach schoolchildren common historical facts.
Scholars from France and Germany presented their papers under the title of “Between Ambitious Goals and Stark Realities.” They shed light on the difficulties in the process of writing three volumes of common history textbooks. They stressed that they managed to overcome the difficulties and complete the writing process, under the motto of “Let’s move forward fair and square to achieve our goals if the direction is right.”
Germany and Poland are now making efforts to produce a common history textbook. Scholars of both countries made a report on the progress they have so far made in finding common ground on how to describe history.
What attracted keen attention from most participants in the conference were efforts between Israel and Palestine for a bilateral dialogue to promote a better understanding of history. Scholars of both sides got together in Jerusalem and some Palestinian regions to discuss how to make a common textbook, even running the risk of death threats from those opposing the dialogue.
They said that they felt safer when they met in third countries such as Germany and Sweden. They finally overcame the difficulties and came to publish the first common history textbook in 2003. Since then, Israel and Palestine have published second and third common textbooks, allowing students on both sides to learn common history.
Of course, there have been lots of obstacles to giving classes by using the common textbooks at the initial stage. In Israel, the authorities had advised teachers using common textbooks to resign, while some teachers and even their family members were intimidated not to adopt common textbooks in Palestine.
For this reason, many teachers had to give classes not in schools but in their homes. Then with the help of Sweden, Palestinian students could afford to take history classes with common textbooks in third countries or non-Palestine regions. Such classes enjoyed tremendous popularity among students.
As such, more and more Palestinian students have come to demand that classes be given with common textbooks, instead of existing textbooks. Students have certainly seen a potential for peace through the new textbooks. They are ready to listen to what Israelis say, while the older generations would not do so. They have begun to think that common textbooks are an effective means to help bring peace to both Palestine and Israel.
For more than half a century, history textbooks of Korea and Japan have taught students that their own country is only right without respecting each other. Both nations have refused to hear what each other says. Korea, which thinks that it was unilaterally a victim of Japanese aggression and colonial rule, has been accustomed to urging Japan to reflect on and apologize for its past misdeeds. Koreans have also called on Japan to make compensation or reparation for what victims of wartime atrocities suffered from.
But Japan has turned a deaf ear to what its neighbor has claimed, believing that it is also a victim of World War II. Such a deeply-rooted contradictory victim mentality, if persists, could only make the two countries keep each other at bay and hate each other without bringing any change to their future in a new century.
Therefore it is urgent for the two countries to make efforts for better history education by publishing common textbooks and providing a forum to discuss ways of liquidating the legacy of past militarism and colonialism. Such efforts might be seen as being late compared with experiences of France and Germany as well as Israel and Palestine. But it’s better late than never.
Both Korean and Japanese students can better understand each other through common history textbooks and joint classes. When they grow up, they may find it easier to narrow differences between the two nations and resolve the history-related issues than ever before.
Dr. Kwak Jin-o is a research fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.