By Eamonn Fingleton
TOKYO, Japan -- In my post yesterday I pointed out that Westerners suffer many blindspots in their understanding of East Asia. I underlined the point by asking two quiz-style questions. It is time for some rather surprising answers.
Question 1: Can you name an atrocity that happened in East Asia in the 1930s that, on a one-day, one-decision basis, probably ranks as the worst atrocity in history?
Answer: It was an event that happened in China -- but, no, it was not the Nanking massacre. Rather it was the Huang He (Yellow River) flooding of 1938.
Question 2: In what nation did the campaign for justice for the so-called comfort women (the sex slaves used by the Japanese imperial forces in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s) begin?
Answer: No, it was not South Korea; rather it was the Netherlands.
If you flunked, don't feel bad -- just cancel your newspaper subscription!
Our English-speaking media, with few exceptions, have never taken more than a superficial interest in East Asia -- or any other part of Asia for that matter. Yes, I know that there is plenty of coverage of the region in "serious" newspapers. But few correspondents stay long in the region and those who do often end up becoming mouthpieces of the local establishment. As East Asia is hardly a free-speech zone (pace all talk during the Cold War of how certain nations in the region had embraced Western values), much press coverage is propaganda in disguise. This is difficult to illustrate in a few words but anyone who studies -- really studies -- the long term record can identify major problems with the way the press approaches the region.
To be fair, it should be added that the press are hardly solely to blame. The American scholarly community must also carry the can. Here again I can hear some gasps but many American scholars are funded from East Asia with significant practical consequences for what they study and who gains prominence in their fields.
What is beyond question is that even many China specialists at U.S. universities have never heard of the Huang He massacre, for instance. Yet it was truly an enormous atrocity. On Encyclopedia Britannica's numbers, between 500,000 and 900,000 people died after Chinese Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai Shek destroyed the Yellow River's dikes near Kaifeng. The move was undertaken to try to slow the advance of Japanese troops during the Sino-Japanese War.
(It is interesting to note incidentally that the New York Times ran a major article on the Yellow River in 2006 without ever mentioning the 1938 atrocity. We shouldn't be too hard on the journalist concerned, of course, because his general knowledge was limited by the failure of previous generations of Western journalists and historians to put the matter on record. (The article's here.)
As for the comfort women issue, this came to be widely discussed in the English-speaking media only as recently as the early 1990s. Yet the scandal of the Japanese army's brutalization of more than 100,000 women -- most of them either Korean or Chinese -- was never any secret in East Asia. It was common knowledge all along not only in Japan, but in South Korea and China, among many other nations. It was just not talked about.
The Netherlands takes credit as the first nation to press the issue with post-war Japan. As early as 1948, the Dutch colonial authorities in the then Dutch East Indies (the archipelago now known as Indonesia) brought several Japanese citizens to trial on sex slavery charges and executed one of them. The charges arose from the deployment of between 100 and 200 captured Dutch women in war-time military brothels.