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Asian Tensions and the Problem of History

Author: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
May 24, 2013
International Herald Tribune

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The political turmoil currently roiling Northeast Asia — a region that should otherwise be basking in success right now — can often seem bewildering to outsiders. One key to understanding, however, can be found in a surprising location: a single recent photograph.

On May 12, a journalist snapped a picture of Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, grinning from the cockpit of a fighter jet. Such politician photo-ops are neither unusual nor controversial in the West, where the worst thing they tend to provoke is eye-rolling (think of Michael Dukakis looking like Snoopy in a tank during his failed race for the presidency in 1988, or George W. Bush's landing on an aircraft carrier in May 2003, and beaming under a banner declaring that the war in Iraq was a "Mission Accomplished").

Not so in Asia, at least not these days: no sooner had the photograph of Abe appeared than howls of anger erupted across China, and one of South Korea's largest newspapers, Chosun Ilbo, excoriated him for his "never ending provocations."

One might have expected a picture of Japan's leader atop military hardware to have raised a few eyebrows in the region — after all, his country is still officially pacifist. But few casual observers would have predicted just how much fury it produced, or the particular detail that sparked it. It turns out that the real outrage wasn't Abe's jet itself, but the marking on its side: the number 731.

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