Asia's Textbook Tussle

Escalating a diplomatic skirmish over a new Japanese history textbook that critics say whitewashes World War II atrocities committed by Japan, South Korea announced Monday that it planned to recall its ambassador to Tokyo.

The Japanese government has come under fire from South Korea, China and other Asian nations for giving its approval last week to a middle-school textbook written by scholars who defend the nation's wartime record.

Outrage has been especially vocal in Korea, where bitter memories of 35 years of Japanese colonial rule — from 1910 until the end of the World War II in 1945 — remain vivid.

Opponents say the textbook justifies Japan's occupation of its Asian neighbors and emphasizes the suffering of the Japanese people during the war over the atrocities inflicted by its military on the rest of the region.

The South Korean government immediately lodged an official complaint, and demonstrators took to the streets in Seoul.

On Monday, the South Korean government decided to recall its ambassador to Japan in response to mounting domestic criticism that its objections had not been forceful enough.

Ambassador Choi Sang-ryong will return to Seoul on Tuesday to discuss the government's position on the matter, Assistant Foreign Minister Lim Sung-joon told reporters, though he qualified the recall as "temporary."

The tussle over the new textbook is the latest battle between Japan and the rest of Asia over what Japanese students are taught about how their country behaved during the war.

In 1993, Japan's Education Ministry gave into mounting pressure and, for the first time, allowed mention of the 200,000 women kidnapped throughout Asia to work in military brothels.

But most textbooks used the standard government euphemism for the sex slaves — "comfort women" — without explaining what they were forced to do.

Since last week, Japanese politicians have scrambled to remind its Asian neighbors that Japan stands by an official apology for its World War II aggression made in 1995 by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

But they also have said they have no plans to revise the new textbook, stressing that it was reviewed by an impartial committee of education officials who demanded 137 changes of passages deemed inappropriate.

Officials in South Korea and Japan worried that the high-profile textbook dispute could set back relations between the two countries after decades of quiet progress by diplomats.

Japanese Vice-Foreign Minister Yutaka Kawashima met with the South Korean envoy Monday night and told him their governments "must not allow this issue to damage our good relationship."

Seoul and Tokyo seemed on their way to putting history behind them in 1998 when the Japanese government apologized during state visit by President Kim Dae-jung for inflicting "great suffering" on Koreans under colonialism.

But the Japanese textbook controversy has even cast its shadow over world soccer's sowcase event.

South Korea and Japan are co-hosting the 2002 World Cup — a first-ever arrangement that was supposed to ease animosity between the Asian rivals.

A member of the South Korean organizing committee on Monday wondered whether historical animosity would keep Japanese Emperor Akihito from visiting Seoul to attend the opening match.

"We hope that such issues can be fully resolved so that the Japanese emperor will be able to attend the opening match," Chung Moon-jong, co-chairman of the Korean World Cup committee, told reporters.

The opening match of the 32-nation, 64-match event will be played May 31, 2002, in the South Korean capital, and the final game will be held June 30 in Yokohama, Japan.