Japan Rewrites Its Manchuria Story

Roundup: Talking About History

Howard W. French, The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2004

The Japanese-era buildings, built to last in red brick, still peek out, stolid and fastidious, from the shadows of the new Shenyang that is soaring up all about them.

ructures like the train station and old post office here are the only physical traces that remain of the imperial period in the 1930 and 40's, when Japan envisioned Manchuria as the springboard for a conquest of all of Asia -- a model colony in an all or nothing contest between the white and yellow races.

Psychological traces from the period have proved even harder to obscure. Today, historians and novelists in Japan who want to rebuild pride in their history are reviving fantasies that the conquest was a just and noble mission to modernize Manchuria. For China, this retelling of history by its centuries-old rival has stirred a powerful resurgence of memories of atrocities and subjugation.

The debate vividly illustrates the immense gulf of bitterness and suspicion that still divides Asia's two great powers. The gulf is so wide that when China reportedly awarded a multibillion-dollar contract to Japanese companies for the construction of a bullet train network in the former Manchuria, splashy announcements were avoided for fear of angering the public here, but demonstrations broke out anyway.

In Japan, the romanticizing of the Manchurian occupation reflects an ascendant conservative view in academia, the media and publishing that the country must get over its self-loathing about its imperial past and hold its head high. For his part, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi regularly pays his respects at Tokyo's most controversial landmark, Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto temple dedicated to the war dead, including some notorious war criminals.

The Japanese rediscovery of Manchuria is focused specifically on the efforts of progressive social scientists, writers and artists of the time who went to live there during the occupation to escape an increasingly asphyxiating climate at home. Their intention -- and for a time they were given great latitude to pursue it -- was to build a utopian society they hoped would win over Asia and humanize their militaristic homeland.

Among the Japanese today who have written sympathetically of this experiment is the popular author Natsuo Kirino, who is writing a novel about Manchuria. She compared the experience there to the rapture over Japan's economic rise in the 1980's, when ''anything seemed possible'' and Japan seemed 10 feet tall. ''Manchuria was a land of illusions, and I want to see what happened to those people, and to their dreams,'' she said in an interview.

Told what their Japanese counterparts are writing, Chinese intellectuals who study the same period express deep resentment, even disgust.

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