Asia's Big Blind Spots about History

How would Hitler get in a Taiwanese political ad? Why won't Japan admit to its WWII wrongs? There could be a connection

By Bruce Einhorn

The second week of July provided a vivid reminder of how the ghosts of World War II still haunt much of East Asia. On July 13, the International Olympic Committee voted to award the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing, despite critics of China's human-rights record who likened the Beijing Games to the Nazi regime's 1936 Games in Berlin. Meanwhile, South Korea was breaking off cultural and military ties with Japan to protest the distribution of schoolbooks that allegedly whitewash Japan's record of atrocities in Korea and China. And in Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian's ruling party was caught in an international controversy surrounding a controversial TV commercial, which seeks to get young people more involved in the party by spotlighting four leaders -- including Adolf Hitler.

The ad was produced for Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has long prided itself on its enlightened attitude toward human rights. Strange, but true. According to the Taipei Times, an English-language newspaper in Taiwan, a party spokesman at first defended the use of Hitler alongside former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy. "We chose them for their bold characteristics," Juan Chao-hsiung, DPP youth department director, told the paper. According to the Associated Press, Juan added that Hitler "dared to speak his own mind."


  That was too much for the Anti-Defamation League, the Washington (D.C.)-based organization devoted to combating anti-Semitism. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the ADL, faxed a letter to DPP Chairman Frank Hsieh expressing "shock and outrage" and calling for the party to use its influence to promote more understanding about the Holocaust. (A copy can be found at the ADL Web site).

The DPP moved quickly to contain the damage. The day after the news broke, I spoke to Wilson Tien, the party's director of international affairs. The commercial was supposed to be "sarcastic," he said, with some of the political figures chosen because they "represent wrong values." The DPP was planning to add subtitles to the ad to explain that the President's party does not approve of Hitler. "The message," says Tien, "has to be clarified."

Unfortunately, this "misunderstanding" is not an isolated incident. Taiwan once had a restaurant that had a concentration-camp theme. South Korea had one, too. It's not unusual for Hitler's visage to turn up in print ads in Asia -- one recent ad from a major newspaper in Hong Kong comes to mind. In fact, as I sat in my office this morning writing this story, a young Hong Konger walked past in the hallway wearing a shirt adorned with Nazi patches on the sleeve and breast pocket.


  What's going on? I doubt it's full-fledged anti-Semitism, which seems to be blessedly absent in most of the region. Yes, cranks in Japan have railed against the Jews, but for the most part the Buddhist and Confucian cultures of Asia have fairly benign attitudes toward Jewish people.

Indeed, for groups like the ADL that focus on combating anti-Semitism, East Asia usually doesn't even make the radar screen. Of course, countries with sizeable Muslim populations, like Malaysia, are another story, due in part to their antipathy toward Israel. According to the ADL, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has a "long record of anti-Semitism and belief in a Jewish conspiracy to bring about the downfall of Malaysia."

Far from hating Jews, most Chinese I've met seem to admire them as having almost Chinese-like characteristics. Jews, I'm often told by Chinese, are clever and good at business -- attributes they feel they share as people. The speakers seem to be unaware they're repeating what in Europe and the U.S. is viewed as an intolerant caricature.


  Many Chinese I've talked to also identify with Jews as successful but vulnerable people often targeted by resentful and racist neighbors. During the Asian financial crisis, thousands of ethnic Chinese had to flee Indonesia following vicious anti-Chinese rioting in which their houses and businesses went up in flames. A pogrom with Chinese instead of Jews, but a pogrom nonetheless.

Given the lack of Jew hatred in much of East Asia, it's reasonable for someone like the ADL's Foxman to be puzzled. As he wrote in his letter to the DPP chairman, "it should be obvious that Hitler is not a role model -- political or otherwise -- for Taiwan's youth."

It should be obvious, but why isn't it? Here's one interpretation: Maybe it's simply a case of people trying to shock others by taking a taboo symbol and flaunting it, akin to what punk rockers like Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols did in the 1970s. Or maybe they're trying to attack Nazism by subverting and mocking its symbols. Think Mel Brooks and his Broadway smash, The Producers, with all of its sieg-heiling chorus girls dancing on Hitler's grave.


  I'm not trying to defend what goes on, but perhaps some people in Asia don't even see the Nazi symbol as offensive. How could that be? The swastika is an ancient symbol still used today among Buddhists -- as well as the Falun Gong movement, which inspires so much fear among China's leaders. Still, there's no confusing the Nazi swastika with the Buddhist version. The sort of swastikas one finds in Buddhist temples or vegetarian restaurants aren't tilted, Nazi-like, and they aren't done up in Nazi colors.

Instead, I think the problem may simply be ignorance. Some people don't really know or care what the symbol represents. After all, the Holocaust and Christian Europe's 2000-year history of Jew hatred are things that seem very distant to many people in this part of the world. According to Tien of the DPP, the problem is exacerbated by Taiwan's lack of diplomatic recognition. "Because we are isolated, that discourages our people from thinking about what happens in the international community," he says. "This contributes to some ignorance."

It's not just Western catastrophes that escape scrutiny. Japan still hasn't come to grips with what it did to the region during World War II, as writer Ian Buruma has described in his book The Wages of Guilt. Hence the controversy in Korea over the Japanese textbooks. Or the decision by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to visit the Tokyo shrine that memorializes fallen Japanese soldiers -- including war criminals. Or suggestions by some Japanese that the Rape of Nanjing wasn't so serious.


  The Japanese are not the only ones unwilling to address their recent past. In China, it's difficult for people to talk about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, Communist-made disasters in which millions died in the 1960s, not to mention the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Given that many Asians have such a hard time dealing with their own past, it's not surprising that some also have difficulty understanding the history of others. But as the region becomes increasingly important in the global economy that needs to change.

When they want to stop pesky Americans from criticizing their human-rights records, some apologists for Asian regimes say the problem is really with Westerners who don't do enough to understand Asian history and culture. Who knows? Maybe we Americans don't. But it would be awfully nice if more Asians recognized that they, too, have some work to do. They could start with Hitler and World War II.

Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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