Coming to Terms With Difficult History: Japan, China, Germany, and the United States

Other countries are distorted by their failure to come to terms with brutal realities of their past. So are we.
Carlos Javier Ortiz, for the Atlantic.

Listen to the next discussion you hear of tensions between Japan and two of its neighbors, South Korea and China. You'll hear again and again that an important root problem is Japan's difficulty in coming to terms with its history of World War II-era aggression in China and use of Korean "comfort women" as sex slaves for its troops.

Listen to the discussions you're about to hear on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China. You'll hear about the distortions arising from the Chinese government's refusal to come to terms with its suppression of protest then, let alone the large-scale terrors of the Cultural Revolution and the politically engineered mass starvations of the Great Leap Forward era.

Listen to any discussion of politics and economics in Europe, and see how much turns on recognition of Germany's doing as much as a country can to come to terms with the atrocities of its Nazi era. Or consider what the struggle for "truth and reconciliation" has done to increase post-apartheid South Africa's chances for political and economic progress.

Then read Ta-Nehisi Coates's magnificent new article in the latest issue of the Atlantic. It is about America's failure to come to terms with a central, brutal reality of our long-ago past and our ongoing present. When he talks about "reparations," he is talking about a process that begins with facing the truth, and the past, with the honesty we fault the Japanese or Chinese for failing to display.

Read this article, and reflect on the recent Supreme Court rulings saying that since racism is a dim relic of the past, there's no further point in voting-rights laws or affirmative action provisions.

Mainly, read the article.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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