Teaching history of our region is also important

Rape of NankingJohn Howard probably doesn't deserve the general cynicism he is attracting from his usual critics over his efforts to get history back into the curriculum, or for his view that it ought to focus rather more on facts and narrative than on themes and flights of fancy. But he, or Australia, has much more to worry about than the future worldview of young Australians. He would be doing just as well by looking at how history and local world views are shaping the regional and international environment in which we live.

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, a calculated act of Japanese Army mayhem and havoc after its troops took over the town from the retreating Chinese Army in December 1937. Over the next few weeks an orgy of killing and raping of the mostly civilian population occurred—probably 350,000 people were murdered. It is often said that there was, at first, little Japanese embarrassment at the systematic slaughter, since it was hoped and expected that it would create such terror as to make China think that resistance to Japanese might was useless and would only intensify horror.

Though one would have to be 80 or more to have any personal memory of the events, the Rape of Nanking is a continuing powerful point of tension between China and Japan—indeed between North and South East Asia and Japan. It surfaces every August, as it did last week, when senior Japanese figures, commemorating the end of World War II visit shrines for Japanese war dead, including shrines to some of Japan's war criminals. And it also comes to a head regularly with the publication of fresh Japanese history texts which gloss over or completely ignore Japan's role in the war, which began for China in 1937.

It's not quite the argument about an apology—an essentially sterile one. Japan has apologised, in all manner of ways, to almost everyone. Nor is it a matter of blaming the present population of Japan. Rather the argument is about acknowledgement, and fervent belief that the Japanese should never forget the barbarity, the brutality, the conscious cruelty and the dishonour which it visited upon the Chinese, the Filipinos, Allied prisoners of war and others during that terrible decade which began 69 years ago.

John Howard, probably, would not say, 'Get over it', because he, while well sensible about the difference between modern Japan and its present leadership, grew up under a shadow cast by the war against Japan. And his belief that people should know their history, and in an ordered, narrative form, rather than disorganised and unintegrated set of themes, is perfectly sincere, and, so far as I am concerned, quite convincing. He is right too in fearing not only the guff that passes for history but the fact that fewer and fewer young Australians are studying any history, guff or good, at all.

But the problem is wider than that. Just as we have a national interest in having our citizens—young and old, new and old—know our history, we have an increasingly important interest in having our neighbours know ours—and their own. It's not just Japan which is suspected or misunderstood because it fails to appreciate what it has done or how it is perceived; Australia is in much the same position so far as most of the nations of Asia are concerned.

Thai Burma RailroadIn many cases that is even when we have a reasonable story to tell—certainly one that is better than the vaguely held theories about us. In other cases, once we are more conscious of how our own actions have affected people, or how they have been perceived, there might even be room for a bit more explanation, perhaps even self-criticism.

How come, for example, we have made a cult of the deaths of Australian prisoners of war in Changi and the Burma railroad, and the sufferings of survivors (including my father), and simply do not know or include in our histories that the capture of Singapore was immediately followed by the massacre of perhaps 20,000 local Chinese?

If John Howard is serious about history, he should be devoting as much time to having us understand the senses of history of our neighbours, and having our neighbours understand our sense of our own. It's mostly virgin territory. It could sponsor, for example, the development in Australia of a great centre of study for ourselves and our neighbours focused not only on explaining our broad liberal culture, history and sense of ourselves but on helping us understand rather better the culture, history and story of our neighbours.

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