Answers to the Asian History Quiz

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.

The Dutch went on in 1956 successfully to persuade the Japanese government to pay compensation to the women. And in 1985 the story of what happened was published in an official Dutch government history of the war.

By comparison the comfort women issue remained sub rosa in most East Asian nations until well into the late 1980s. In Korea, for instance, it was swept under the rug by the dictator Park Chung-hee when he took power in 1961. Park, who had been an officer in the Japanese army in the Second World War and who is said to have spoken Japanese as his first language, settled Korea's war claims against Tokyo in an agreement in 1965 that effectively sold the comfort women down the river.

Similarly in the early 1980s, the comfort women issue was given short shrift by Chinese leaders anxious to renew ties with Japan. In return for more favorable economic relations with Tokyo, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai signed away all Chinese individuals' claims for compensation arising out of the Sino-Japanese war.

(As a footnote to the above it should be recorded that Dutch leadership on this issue was tarnished by the fact that the Dutch authorities acted only behalf of women of Dutch nationality and undertook no similar action in the case of a far greater number of Indonesian women who were similarly victimized at a time when they were under Dutch rule.)

Why resurrect such ancient grievances now? Ignorance on these issues suggests that self-censorship is one factor in how Americans see East Asia. In the case of the Huang He massacre, American amnesia probably stems in part from the fact of the Cold War alliance with Chiang Kai Shek's Taiwan. Meanwhile the alliance with Japan clearly trumped American concerns for the comfort women, as well as for countless other victims of imperial Japan's aggression (not least thousands of American prisoners of war).

More generally a lack of understanding of East Asia has contributed significantly to some of the greatest American foreign policy disasters of the post-World War II era. Remember, for instance, that few American opinion makers offered prescient warnings of what America was getting into with the passing of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964. Yet a better understanding of the facts would surely have suggested that the Domino Theory made no sense.

By the same token in more recent times most of the press swallowed the Bush administration's line that a defeated Iraq in 2003 would play out like a defeated Japan in 1945. In reality, for those of us who know Japan, about the only thing Iraq and Japan have in common is they are not the United States! For my own forebodings on the invasion see an editorial page article I published in the International Herald Tribune in March 2003. Far too few such warnings were published at a time when they might have made a difference.

All that said, in my own work I concentrate mainly on economic issues. Unfortunately the degree to which American economic policy towards East Asia is based on faulty information cannot easily be illustrated in a few sentences. But as succeeding generations are destined to discover, present misunderstandings will prove to be of first-order importance to the future of the United States.

Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America's Fate in an Era of Chinese Dominance.