The Problem of Memory

Courtesy Reuters


The memory of a brief conversation nags me whenever I think about Asia's future. The conversation took place shortly after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, during a secret meeting with a leader of China's underground democracy movement. We met in a quiet corner of a Beijing restaurant, where he tapped the table suspiciously to see if it was bugged. This was a man whose vision I admired, so I listened intently when the waitress stepped away and he leaned forward to disclose his plans for promoting human rights.

"We're going to kill Japanese," he said brightly.


"We're going to kill Japanese businessmen. That'll scare them so they won't invest here. And then the government will really be screwed!"

"You're not serious?"

"Of course we're serious. We can't demonstrate these days and we can't publish. The only thing we can do for democracy is kill Japanese businessmen."

I protested that it seemed odd to promote human rights by murdering innocent businessmen. But he just smiled at my narrow-mindedness, with a "you-will-never-understand-Asia" grin.

"They're Japanese," my friend said dismissively. "Japanese devils."

He never did kill anyone. But the vitriol in his voice underscored Asia's historical tensions, which are especially intractable because they exist between peoples, not governments.

While Asia has seemed remarkably peaceful since the end of the Vietnam War, the peace is a fragile one, concealing dormant antagonisms and disputes that could still erupt. Now the recent economic crisis has increased the risk of an explosion. With nations as with households, tempers fray when the money runs out. And insecure regimes may try to boost their legitimacy by picking a fight, distracting discontented citizens with military adventures.

At the heart of the tension in Asia lies Japan's failure to apologize meaningfully for its wartime brutality. While anti-Japan sentiment among the Chinese and Koreans has deeper roots, it largely derives from Japan's behavior before and during World War II. Japan must therefore come to grips with its past

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