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Japan's Nonstop Amnesia

This commentary was written by CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen
They say that, after a war, the losers get the gallows and the winners get to write the history.

Except for Japan.

Sixty years after the end of World War II, the Japanese version of its wartime history continues to offend countries across Asia who were occupied by the Japanese and suffered the brutality, murder and germ warfare experimentation of the Imperial Army.

As it does periodically, it has boiled over again in China. Students (carefully gathered and controlled by the government) staged demonstrations in several cities, including Beijing, where they pelted the Japanese Embassy and the ambassador's residence with rocks and plastic water bottles.

The streets of Seoul, South Korea, have not seen similar protests ... yet.

What, you might ask, is up here?

The proper answer, difficult as it is to say, is Japanese arrogance rearing its head. Again.

As has happened before, the anger revolves around recently approved school textbooks, which whitewash Japan's history in the first half of the 20th Century: its decades long occupation of Korea, its invasion of China, its brutal 1937 massacre in Nanjing that, by most accounts, took 300,000 lives.

The Japanese also forced women in occupied countries into brothels to "service" Japanese troops. They called them comfort women.

Let's take what historians call the "Rape of Nanjing" because that's my personal favorite for ongoing Japanese denial.

Did it happen? Outside of Japan - especially in China - there seems remarkably little dispute. But in Japan the textbooks often refer to this incident, if at all, by saying "many lives were lost" with no numbers, or worse, a glossed over and now familiar phrase that "the historical facts are in dispute."

Do not, for a second, consider that this whitewash is confined to textbooks. I've interviewed members of Japan's Parliament who say exactly the same thing, that the historical facts are in dispute.

So what's up here?

Simply put - Japan feels to apologize might suggest it was somehow wrong or evil during the war. And to obscure the issue even more cleverly, it simply ignores the parts of history that prove the evil that was Japanese occupation.

So Japanese go to school and learn a history sanitized of the realities of Japanese atrocities.

Want a contrast? Try Germany, which not only openly apologized for the war, the concentration camps, the brutality of its rule, but honestly and starkly teaches each German generation in the belief that each generation must know and understand what went wrong - so it won't go wrong again.

And more - it has preserved the concentration camps so not only its own people, but the rest of us, can visit and see and understand just how this genocide worked with horrible efficiency.

Not so, the Japanese.

This comes as a time when Japan can ill afford to offend China. The Japanese economy, sliding downward for more than a decade, is back in one of its periodic stalls. China is the engine that can help. Newly rich Chinese buy Japanese exports or purchase Japanese goods manufactured in China.

So Japanese business took note when some of the Chinese demonstrations were aimed at Japanese stores or goods in stores made in Japan.

Will it change Japan's attitude? Probably not. Nationalism trumps economics in Japan, without fail.

How much longer will Japan continue to whitewash its history? Well, we're at 60 years since the end of the war and still counting, and as recent events show, there are no signs of change by the Japanese.

If we were talking about a person, we'd suggest he or she get some counseling for being in denial.

Alas, there is no psychiatric couch big enough for a whole nation in denial.