The Past is Now the Present

The Armenian genocide, Nanjing Massacre, and Korean comfort stations were all atrocities that occurred in the 20th century that still play a role in world politics today as governments refuse to acknowledge the victims, pay reparations, and educate students.

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By Tina Siu

Global Conflicts is the seventh unit in my AP World History class. Communist revolutions, new warfare technology, and both world wars are included in the seemingly endless unit. As my class navigated World War I and II, my teacher constantly emphasized the importance of discussing stories that were not necessarily part of our curriculum. Discussing the rights and wrongs of countries in history, including our own, is necessary for students around the world to understand why presenting the truth is crucial.

Just before midwinter vacation, we learned about the Armenian genocide that had happened during World War I, which prior to taking this class, I had not known about. The week we came back, we learned about the Nanjing Massacre in China and the comfort women in Korea during World War II, topics that deeply resonated with me as an Asian-American woman. Though international war laws have been passed to prevent atrocities like these from ever taking place again, a few countries to this day still do not recognize or apologize for their actions during the war. Despite the effort of governments to erase uncomfortable truths from history books and deny the statistics, the past cannot simply be brushed away.

The Armenian genocide took place from 1915 to 1916, but tensions lasted much longer afterward. The Ottoman Empire was suspicious of its Armenian civilians as they worried that the significant Armenian population might side with Russia. The Ottoman Empire decided to execute the majority of its Armenian population. This systematic genocide forced 1.5 million Armenians into death marches, where they walked endlessly until they succumbed to death by exposure, were shot by execution squads, or were sexually assaulted by the Ottoman military. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the land became known as Turkey. However, despite the numerous crimes committed against the Armenian people, the Turkish government still refuses to recognize the event as a genocide and instead places blame on outside factors to account for Armenian deaths. On the official Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, the ministry explicitly states that “the Armenian deaths do not constitute genocide” and argues that instead, the deaths were “complicated by disease, famine, and many other of war’s privations.” Furthermore, the Turkish government deflects blame by insisting that the genocide occurred under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and not the Turkish government, exonerating the Turkish government from their violent past. They refuse to admit that their government committed violent acts which laid Turkey’s foundation. Until just two years ago, the United States sided with Turkey and turned a blind eye to the Armenian genocide. The United States is an ally of Turkey and has numerous military bases there, which is why they need to maintain good relationships with the Turkish government. When a global superpower chooses to prioritize military alliance over acknowledging millions of victims, this encourages the warping of history. The U.S. chose to prioritize its economic and militaristic well-being in international conflicts over helping non-Americans, a policy that has been demonstrated to be true time and time again, from its neutrality in World War I to its appeasement policy during Hitler’s reign. President Biden finally recognized the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2021, by issuing a press statement on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Though strides are being made to acknowledge the victims, progress still needs to be made.

Many Turkish citizens and students side with the Turkish government, believing that the Armenian genocide did not occur, likely due to the biased history fed to children in school. Since it was only acknowledged as a genocide two years ago, it has consequently only been taught as a genocide recently, and students who have already graduated likely do not know the extent of it.

Furthermore, America also teaches biased history in regards to its own. When discussing slavery and racism, the blame tends to be shifted toward Europe, making us appear less involved. However, America still participated in the transatlantic slave trade and set up concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens during World War II. To this day, systemic racism still unjustly affects people of color. Many students know about the destruction that resulted when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, but few also discuss the aftermath of the two atomic bombs from the U.S. that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. tries to downplay its wrongdoings and make it seem as if all its problems were in the past, making it just as guilty as other governments that deny the existence of genocides.

I was not alone in my lack of knowledge about the Armenian genocide; several other students were in the same boat as me. This topic is clearly sensitive, and educators are constantly debating the appropriate age for kids to learn this history. However, history entails disclosing violent pasts, even if it is uncomfortable. Kids are extremely intelligent; they know about life and death from a young age. All kids in New York City learn about 9/11 in elementary and middle school and hear about the crimes Christopher Columbus committed when he “discovered” America. Though massacres do not have to be discussed in extreme detail in elementary school, schools around the world should teach the Armenian genocide in an unbiased manner that gives students the perspective of both sides of the argument instead of forcing one belief upon them.

During World War II, Japan fought for dominance in East Asia as its European allies attempted to control Europe. Japan believed that it was superior to the other East Asian countries and that it should be the one to unify Asia. In the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937, Japan invaded China and occupied the capital of Nanjing. Over a six-week span, Japanese soldiers bombed, burned, slaughtered, and raped Chinese citizens. To this day, the exact number of casualties is still debated, but the rough estimate is between 200,000 and 300,000.  Just like Turkey, Japan denies the occurrence of these violent events. Japanese government officials formally denied the Nanjing massacre in 1990, calling it a lie. Several Japanese historians and nationalists acknowledge the massacre but argue that death tolls were actually much lower, around 20,000 instead of 200,000. Today, there are still heavy tensions between China and Japan as a result of their bloody and dark history. According to the Pew Research Center, only 11 percent of the Japanese express a favorable opinion toward the Chinese, and 14 percent of the Chinese express a favorable opinion toward the Japanese. Considering the significant power of both countries, their uneasy relations could prove to be a future conflict.

Meanwhile, in Korea, Japanese soldiers occupied the farmland and labor industry, transforming Korea into Japanese territory. The Japanese Imperial Army forced and falsely led up to 200,000 Korean women and girls into sexual slavery, forcing them to work at comfort stations as comfort women to have sex with dozens of Japanese soldiers every day. The living conditions were horrible, and the survivors today experience immense post-traumatic stress as a result. Lee Ok-sun, a 91-year-old bedridden woman, expressed, “I just wish I could live at peace for one single day.” Japan acknowledged the comfort women of Korea through their 2015 deal with South Korea. Tokyo issued an official apology and provided ¥1 billion, roughly $9.3 million, to a charity that supports comfort women victims; however, South Korea backed out of the deal after some victims were neglected. Despite this war happening almost a century ago, the generational trauma of many is too considerable to forgive and forget.

The Nanjing Massacre is taught briefly in Japanese schools, with just one sentence stating that it occurred. In China, the situation is much different. Students learn extensively from elementary school about the Rape of Nanjing, sex trafficking, and the hundreds of thousands that were killed. For China and South Korea, the past violations of their country are too important to ignore by not discussing them explicitly. The lack of acknowledgment and apology from Japan, one of the most powerful countries in the world, still influences international relationships today. Both China and South Korea have been feuding against Japan for decades and will probably continue to feud for decades into the future if proper change does not occur.

At the beginning of the school year, my teacher asked us, “Why is it important for us to learn the true history, and what does true history mean?” There is a purpose for history being taught in schools: to provide a wider outlook for the next generation and prevent the same events from ever occurring. Discontinuing the cycle of ignorance by providing future generations with the whole truth and advocating for current generations to unlearn the biases they were fed can have a larger impact on global relations and the ethics of governments around the world.