Korean Scientists Turn Greenhouse Gases Into Cold Hard Cash

This article appeared oringally in 10Magazine in April 2015.

A team of young scientists based in Daejeon are developing a cutting-edge plasma technology that converts either carbon dioxide and methane or low-grade coal and water into clean burning hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Could this technology actually help reverse global climate change?

KAIST_Lab

The world reportedly pumped an estimated 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air last year by burning coal, oil and gas. That’s about 700 million tons of the greenhouse gas more than in 2013, an increase of two percent, and it’s projected to increase an additional 2.5 percent this year. Ice caps are melting, oceans are rising and animal species are going extinct on a regular basis; that’s been the veritable mantra among scientists and climate researchers. But in spite of these dire assessments why does nothing change?

One explanation is a fundamental human motive: profit. There’s simply no financial incentive to change. We are living in an energy-thirsty world and, let’s face it, the world appears to only get thirstier. An ever growing number of coal-fired power plants are producing greater quantities of electricity, and emitting more and more CO2, the main heat-trapping gas from human activity.

Friends from KAIST

Now a team of young scientists at a startup in Daejeon are developing an innovative solution that uses greenhouse gases to produce useful chemical commodities, and they hope to make oodles of boodle in the process. Dr. Uhm Sae-hoon, founder of EN2CORE Technology, was positively beaming when the 39-year-old scientist joined 10 Magazine for an interview at his lab at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Korea’s premier school for science and technology. That economic incentive could be a game changer, Uhm says. The profit potential could attract big players like the state-run Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) to invest millions of dollars, helping the technology rapidly scale up and make a massive impact on both the environment and the company’s bottom line.

EN2CORE’s high-tech creativity centers around Uhm’s alma mater, KAIST. The science and technology university is a crucial source for the company’s talent pool and research and development. Indeed, when we visited him at EN2CORE’s lab, we spoke inside KAIST’s physics building, where much of EN2CORE’s research and development takes place.

It is not unusual for a KAIST facility to be used as an incubator for an ultra high-tech enterprise. Two KAIST professors, Dr. Chang Hong-yong and Dr. Cho Gyu-hyong, are also on board with EN2CORE as advisors. Besides KAIST there are an estimated 240 science related organizations in Daejeon, including ETRI (Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute), KARI (Korea Aerospace Research Institute), KAERI (Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute).

Carrying the nickname “Daedeok Innopolis,” nearly 30 high-tech R&D institutes are clustered together in Daedeok Valley in northern Daejeon where more than 20,000 researchers work, 7,000 of whom have PhDs. Dr. Uhm was confident that his team can bring EN2CORE’s CO2 converting plasma technology online by this time next year.

We entered the lab through a hole in the ceiling, descending a spiral staircase into a sprawling facility jam-packed with row after row of metal shelves stacked with machines, instruments and tools.

Dr. Uhm’s lab had more in common with Voldermort’s Lab of Harry Potter notoriety, more of a cluttered university graduate workspace than a well-stocked cutting-edge “Los Alamos” type research facility.

And yet, Uhm and his colleagues appear to be on the cusp of developing an ultra high-tech plasma device. The lesson here: it isn’t hardware that produces clever inventions, but a handful of smart people with enough space to do what they do. He and a few of his colleagues showed us the lab at KAIST as well as his reactor prototype.

Uhm led us to the back of the room where the plasma converter is. The machine itself was about the size of a refrigerator, not nearly as large or formidable as expected. Yet, it could very well be an eco-solution for coal-fired power plants in China, India and elsewhere emitting greenhouse gases.

EN2CORE is Uhm’s second business venture into plasma. He started his first company when he was still a student at KAIST. He and his classmate, Lee Yong-kwan, met while working on their PhDs focused in plasma at KAIST and launched Plasmart in 2000. Plasmart focused on monitoring and controlling plasma processes, diagnostic systems and atmospheric pressure plasma surface treatment systems. Their products served semiconductor and LED display industries until they eventually sold the company to MKS Instruments for $30 million USD in 2012.

On the heels of the success of Plasmart, Uhm and KAIST classmate Lee now run a venture capital group, Bluepoint Partners Inc., along with other colleagues from the prestigious science and technology university and outside investors. Bluepoint is a partner in EN2CORE.

EN2CORE’s Unique Plasma Gasification Technology

Syngas_Chart

Plasma offers a unique way to induce chemical reactions because the electrons in a plasma can be excited to intense energy levels, easily creating a swarm of charged particles. These swirling charged particles react further, re-constituting into new molecules. It is an extraordinary process that results in new chemical products. In this way undesirable compounds like CO2 can be broken up and pieced back together into new and valuable chemical compounds through the magic of plasma technology.

EN2CORE’s unique plasma technology takes two different sets of raw materials and produces synthetic gas (aka “syngas”), which can then be turned into a variety of other products.

One of these processes takes carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) and turns them into carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), which in and of themselves are highly valued commercial products. The cleanest coal fuel power plants in use today still emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide. Thanks to the world’s second largest carbon market recently created by the South Korean government, it now costs money to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. One method of limiting pollutants is for these plants to capture some of the CO2, liquefy it and then store it deep underground, in a process called “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), but this method can still eventually see CO2 resurface and pollute the atmosphere. EN2CORE’s initial profit will come from taking carbon dioxide off the hands of energy producers like the Korea Power Company (KEPCO) at the rate of $50 per ton – and using it as the raw material for this new process.

In addition to converting CO2 into useful chemical compounds, EN2CORE’s other key innovation allows it to take cheap, low-grade coal and process it with water to once again create carbon monoxide and hydrogen through plasma gasification.

Turning Syngas into Money

The resulting syngas can be used as a fuel source or further processed to create a wide variety of end-use chemicals. In both processes the resulting hydrogen can be used as a zero-emission fuel for combustion engines or in electrochemical cells. The syngas can also be converted into hydrocarbons, alcohols like ethanol and methanol, and organic acids such as formic acid and formaldehyde. Although organic acids are not chemicals that EN2CORE aims to focus on, such compounds are integral in the manufacture of everything from cars to clothes.

Uhm summed up just how profitable his new plasma gasification process has the potential to be  — not to mention the benefits of CO2 conversion into syngas and valuable chemical compounds — after the cutting edge tech goes online. “It is very possible to scale up this technology because unlike other carbon-capture and utilization processes, ours possesses an attractive economic value,” Uhm says.

Their initial plasma generator is set to go online in April of 2016, and Uhm says it will process the CO2 emitted from about 5 megawatts of power production annually. That would mean consuming 36,000 tons of CO2, likely raking in about US$5.6 million a year in profit. “It could be scaled up beyond the 10 to 30 megawatt capacity in three to five years. “We see a huge market in servicing small power plants in India and China,” said Uhm.

Once the plasma generator is up and running anywhere in the world, the initial products it produces include carbon monoxide at $365 a ton, hydrogen at over $1,000 a ton and methanol at $400 a ton. These gases can then be utilized as intermediate compounds in the production of such valuable chemicals as ventilation air methane (VAM), acetic acid, gasoline additive MTBE and olefin, which can fetch anywhere from $550 to $1,000 per ton.

GET PAID TOdispose of the planet’s trash and then turn it into cash. Can you get a better business plan?

 

What is “plasma” anyways?

Despite what you may have learned at high school, there are actually four states of matter: Solid, liquid, gas, and a fourth state: Plasma.

Matter’s state can change if heat is applied or removed. As heat is added to a solid it is transformed into a liquid. If more heat is added, then the liquid becomes a gas.

But if still more heat is added, the electrons of the gas are ripped away from their parent nuclei, leaving a sea of free-flowing positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons.

It is this sea of electrons that imbue plasma with its electrical conductivity, its magnetic field, and its sensitivity to external electromagnetic fields. To rip the electrons away in this way, you generally need a very high voltage or immense heat.

Plasmas are similar to gases in that they don’t have a definite shape or volume. But they also differ from gases significantly in that they are electrically conductive and produce a magnetic field.

Plasma gives neon and fluorescent lights their glow, is formed during lightning strikes, and is present in plasma television. In the case of plasma TVs, these excited electrons collide with mercury, producing ultraviolet light that collides with phosphors, which produce light.

Chemists also classify fire as a plasma under special circumstances, and — this will blow your mind — the Sun is a plasma. Indeed, the magnificent dance of the Aurora Borealis is a result of plasma from the Sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

The distinct glow of plasma is generated by the occasional recombination of the negatively charged electrons and positively charged nuclei. The color of the glow emitted is determined by the gas chemistry.

A plasma is produced by blowing a gas into a vacuum chamber and then igniting this gas with electric power. The plasma takes on exotically rich colors depending on that gas. For example, Argon emits purple light; nitrogen emits a reddish orange one; and the light that a fluorocarbon like carbon dioxide emits is blue.

Plasma can also be used as a controllable reactive gas. For example if an object is placed at the edge of a plasma, then the charged particles will bombard the object etching away at the surface. This basic concept has been integral in the electronics industry to produce ever smaller panels of silicon, which are used in laptop computers and cell phones.

Plasma processing has proved essential in the rapid miniaturization and increased performance of computers. The information revolution would have been impossible without knowledge of plasma.

 

 

 

 

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Is Germany’s Unification Experience A Lesson for North and South Korea?

German Ambassador Rolf Mafael poses for a photo with other officials who convened at a panel discussion on national unification in Seoul on Thursday. From left are: Mafael; National Assembly Rep. Lee Jae-young; professor Ra Jong-yil of Hanyang University; Saxony-Anhalt Minister-President Reiner Haseloff; professor Werner Patzelt of Technical University of Dresden; Norbert Eschborn of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation; and Kim Myeon-hoei, president of the Korean Society of Contemporary European Studies.
German Ambassador Rolf Mafael poses for a photo with other officials who convened at a panel discussion on national unification in Seoul on Thursday. From left are: Mafael; National Assembly Rep. Lee Jae-young; professor Ra Jong-yil of Hanyang University; Saxony-Anhalt Minister-President Reiner Haseloff; professor Werner Patzelt of Technical University of Dresden; Norbert Eschborn of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation; and Kim Myeon-hoei, president of the Korean Society of Contemporary European Studies.

This story appeared originally in the Korea Herald on Sep. 28, 2014.

South Korean and German officials and academics convened in Seoul on Thursday to discuss what lessons might be gleaned from the unification of East and West Germany on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

German Ambassador Rolf Mafael, professor Ra Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador and vice minister at the National Intelligence Service, and other senior officials discussed the significance of German unification and the many differences between the German case and the challenges South and North Korea face in reconciling after more nearly 70 years of division.

The talks took place during a panel discussion and dinner reception, entitled “25th Anniversary of Germany’s Peaceful Revolution: Lessons for Korea.”

The revolution began in the East German cities of Leipzig and Dresden in 1989, and eventually precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the country the following year.

“This is a historic year. So, the Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt (Reiner Haseloff) is visiting here. The region is very meaningful and significant in remembering German division and unification for West Germans because we had to pass through the region to enter into East Germany,” Mafael said. “I also remember waiting there for a couple of days before receiving permission to enter East Germany.”

The German Embassy and the South Korean government are commemorating the historic event this year with over a dozen events, including academic seminars, cultural exchanges, visits by VIPs and trade delegations, and a huge reception on German Unity Day, which is celebrated on Oct. 3.

The Ahyon-dong Murder

This story originally appear in the Korea Observer in January 2015.

Police are calling it, “The Ahyon-dong murder.” A Korean man stabbed to death a Chinese woman identified by the surname Lee on the night of Jan. 12 on a narrow street in a residential part of Ahyon-dong, nearby the prestigious Ewha Woman’s University.

The 42-year old married woman was found bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds by neighbors, who called the police at 11:51p.m. “Come quick! A woman is bleeding really bad!” a neighbor reportedly told a 119 emergency operator (South Korea’s emergency number is 119).

Lee was rushed to a nearby hospital, but could not be revived. She was pronounced dead at 12:33a.m.

Seoul Mapo Police apprehended a 31-year old Korean man identified by the surname Choi at his apartment on Jan. 16 at 5:00p.m., and brought him in for questioning. He was charged with the murder of Lee the next day, Jan. 17.

According to police, Lee and Choi went to a Noribang and continued the evening drinking together at Choi’s apartment in Ahyon-dong on the night in question.

Police are looking into the possibility that Lee was killed as she attempted to break up her love affair with the Korean male 11 years her junior. She was stabbed to death outside on the street about 30 meters from Choi’s apartment perhaps as she attempted flee.

Part of the murder was caught on CCTV located in a stairwell of a building near the murder scene.

Lee was a married woman, according to police. Lee married a Korean man identified by the surname Kim, 42. It was her second marriage. She met Kim 10 years ago in China. They lived together in Manwon-dong.

“There was no reason for (Lee) to be in Ahyondong that night. I always had the impression that my son (Kim) and (Lee) had a happy marriage. They had no special marital problems,” Lee’s mother-in-law told a reporter from Newsis.

Lee’s purse, cell phone and other belongings were found on her body at the scene, which led police to believe she was killed by an acquaintance. Police followed the trail to Choi by using Lee’s cell phone to contact her friends who informed them she had planned to meet Choi on the night in question.

When they caught up with Choi at his apartment on the Jan. 16, they found him with the bloodstained murder weapon and still wearing the clothes from that night. He was described by police as “resigned.” He went with police without incident.

Nanjing’s 70-year-old ghost story

This essay was the Third place winner of the Iris Change Memorial Essay Contest in 2007.

 

Memories stay with people. Bad memories can haunt you like a ghost. History works like this as well, like an Asian horror movie. The history of the Pacific War torments China and Japan – indeed, all of Asia and the Pacific. But like a Japanese onryo, or vengeful spirit, the ghosts of Nanjing indiscriminately torment the innocent and the guilty. Karl Marx’s observation that “The history of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” is as true for 21stcentury East Asia as it was for 19th century Europe. The only problem is, the ghosts of Nanjing are for real, so how do we exorcise them? How can China and Japan rid themselves of the nightmare of the Nanjing Massacre and finally put the past behind them?

In East Asia, historical wounds are still festering. Seventy years on, and the memories of Nanjing continue to haunt the Japanese, as well as the Chinese. The ghosts of Nanjing feed an increasingly bitter competition of nationalisms. But Japan’s leaders only hurt their country with jingoism, as a perception of Japan’s former aggression is revived and overshadows the country’s many accomplishments.

The bitterness of the war years is frequently summoned to the present by Chinese feelings of injustice and a Japanese sense of being unfairly singled out for wrongs committed decades ago. When the re-certification of a history textbook in Japan can spark weeks of riots across China in April 2005, sending crowds thousands strong vandalizing Japanese businesses and consulates, it is clear the value of history in East Asia is palpable.

The waves of anger were touched off by Tokyo imbuing credibility into claims made in the New History Textbook, published by a right-wing Japanese group. In one demonstration, some 10,000 angry protesters surrounded Jusco supermarket run by Japanese firm Aeon in the bustling port city Shenzhen, a hub of foreign investment in South China. Many saw the government as sanctioning a whitewashing of the history of Imperial Army atrocities in Nanjing during Japan’s 1937 invasion of China.

The riots vividly illustrate how the memories of Japan’s former aggression, seared into minds of present-day Chinese as feelings of injustice, are unwittingly resurrected as expressions of patriotism. China sees a Japan that is boorish and unapologetic. In fact, hardly any of Japan’s junior high schools have actually adopted the text – just 18 out of more than 11,000, according to one news report. But to the Chinese, it’s enough that the government even extended its seal of approval to such a book.

Now, the ghosts of Nanjing will be channeled into a number of new films. In December, as the world observes the 70thanniversary of the “Rape of Nanjing,” at least three films are starting or are already in production this year (by directors Yim Ho, Stanley Tong and Lu Chuan), in addition to the American production Nanking, which screened at Sundance in January, and focuses on the point-of-view of Westerners in Nanjing when the city succumbed to the Imperial Army’s onslaught. With that, 10 years after the publication of Iris Chang’s incisive work, the Nanjing Massacre has become a cinema sensation.

Unfortunately, extremists in Japan have a film of their own: The Truth About Nanjing. Its theme is predictable, as will be the reactions. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), too, exacerbates bitter feelings, inflaming painful memories with peremptory remarks that deny Japan’s responsibility for atrocities committed by the country’s Imperial Army in the 1930s and ’40s.

But ironically, the caustic remarks of mainstream Japanese leaders hurt themselves most. Japan has the most to pay for its recalcitrance, not China. The more these LDP politicians run their mouths the more they drag Japan’s national image through the mud, soiling what would otherwise be an inspiring record of peace, prosperity and freedom.

By denying the past today, Japan will be condemned to forever re-live the shame of what it did in the 1930s and ‘40s. Thoughtless behavior and insensitive quips overshadow Japan’s accomplishments and re-cast the nation in its image of two generations ago. Who will be able to identify with an image of a Japan calloused by a shameful history?

Expressions of Japanese nationalism, even now, make headlines and incite emotional demonstrations. This is because the images that it invokes in the minds of Chinese – and in the minds of people all over Asia – are invariably informed by haunting recollections of the country’s wartime atrocities, such as the images summoned from Tokyo’s incursions into China. The rape and massacre of civilians in Nanjing upon the city’s collapse in December 1937 – including women, children and the elderly – are quintessential examples of the Japanese Army’s brutality.

These images provoke anxiety over the safety of loved ones and a visceral desire to protect the vulnerable. And these same images prevent the Japanese from demonstrating old-fashioned patriotism. What’s more, Chinese nationalism gets a boost.

In 1972, Asia’s greatest cinematic hero became the champion of everyone who recognizes right from wrong and yearns to defend the downtrodden. That was the year Bruce Lee’s breakthrough film, “Fist of Fury,’’ titled “The Chinese Connection’’ in the U.S., screened for the first time in San Francisco.

Who was not outraged by the Japanese man mocking Lee’s character, Chen Zhen, at a park entrance, as he pointed to a sign reading “No Chinese or Dogs Allowed?’’ And who was not stirred when Chen – inspired by a real-life patriotic insurgent – broke the sign in half with a jump-spinning dropkick? Or when he destroyed a framed calligraphy penned by Japanese imperialists declaring China the “Sick Man of Asia?’’

The actor Bruce Lee and the symbols he destroys in the film are vital to Chinese nationalism. Indeed, every country’s nationalism is about piecing together images that the people can be proud of and rally around. These images inculcate patriotic feelings; in patriotism, symbolism is everything.

In a way, Chinese nationalism became more compelling than Japanese nationalism because appeals to universal sentiments. Anyone can identify with defending the downtrodden against unprovoked aggression. Japan’s denial of the past retards the country’s ability to recover from the war just as it stunts the country’s relations with China and Korea.

Japan’s denial of the atrocities it committed in Nanjing inflames an infection the Imperial Army left more than 70 years ago. Leaving historical wounds to fester makes demonstrating Japanese patriotism impossible.

In one incident between December 1937 and March 1938, some 350,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were slaughtered by the invading Japanese troops, according to mainstream historians. Tens of thousands of victims were beheaded, burned, bayoneted, buried alive or disemboweled.

Worse than that, an estimated 80,000 women and girls were raped. Many were then mutilated and tortured before being murdered. It is in recognition of them that we call this inhumanity the “Rape of Nanjing.’’ The gruesome details are rendered compellingly in Iris Chang’s 1997 book, likely the first written in English. Even sworn Nazi John Rabe was so horrified by Japanese sadism, he urged Adolf Hilter to intervene.

To this day the Japanese government has refused to apologize for these and other World War II atrocities. But unlike Holocaust deniers, the revisionism of the Rape of Nanjing has been largely successful in Japan, where a large swath of Japanese society believes they never happened. This has had consequences for Japan, even while it continues the charade.

In fact, soon after the war 28 men went on trial in an international criminal court in Tokyo for the Nanjing Massacre and other crimes. And during the trial, it became clear that Tokyo had known about the atrocities but ignored them. Of the 28, 25 were found guilty on one or more of the charges. All were sentenced in 1948 either to death by hanging or life imprisonment, but by 1956 every one of them had been paroled.

Decades after the massacre, Japan began to deny and distort the history of Nanjing. In books and columns in Japan, a revisionist perspective of the incident began to emerge, including outright denials that it had ever taken place. Ikuhiko Hata’s “Nanjing Incident’’ is considered by the Japanese Ministry of Education to be the definitive historical text on the subject. This book puts the official death count at between 38,000 and 42,000.

In the 1990s, some top Japanese government officials claimed that the massacre was fabricated. Shocked by this, conscientious professors and parliamentarian ministers tried to set the record straight, but they were thwarted at every turn. Official apologies or compensation have, as a result, not been forthcoming.

In 1997, Japan’s former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized to the victims of Japan’s unprovoked aggression. His apology a decade ago, as well as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s in Indonesia in 2005, should be welcome. However, their apologies are personal ones, not government recognitions of atrocities.

The majority of Murayama’s colleagues in the Japanese government did not share his feelings. And he failed to make a formal and official apology in the so-called “No War Resolution.’’ Only 26 percent of the members of Japan’s Diet supported the resolution. Shockingly, 47 percent voiced opposition. Furthermore, Seisuke Okuno, the former education minister, managed to organize a national campaign collecting 4.5 million signatures against the resolution.

The gaff prone Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said in a 1990 interview: “People say that the Japanese made a holocaust but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie.’’ He has been the top political leader of Japan’s most important city since 1999 and has a realistic chance of becoming Japan’s next prime minister.

In the battle of competing Japanese and Chinese nationalism, the struggle over the re-construction of Japan’s national identity, and whether it will incorporate its past into that re-construction, will determine whether a “normal” Japan can be accepted by its Asian neighbors. It behooves Japanese people everywhere to join in the reconstruction by acknowledging what really happened 70 years ago. Otherwise, the country will remain stuck in the past, preventing itself from taking the leadership role it deserves.

Japan pays dearly in denying this history, a fact poignantly illustrated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States in April. He reacted defensively to a salvo of questions on “comfort women” and Japan’s wartime responsibility. Contrast that with former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder joining with his French, American and British counterparts in D-Day ceremonies in France in June three years ago. These two pictures starkly show how far Japan is behind Germany in coming to terms with its past – and how far Asia is from exorcising the ghosts of Nanjing as compared to Europe’s exorcism of the memories of Auschwitz.

Japan also pays with its international reputation. Japan’s denials cost it permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. China’s Premier Wen Jiabao specifically said in April 2005 that Beijing would wield its veto power to block Japan’s U.N. aspirations until Tokyo “respects history, takes responsibility for history and wins over the trust of peoples in Asia.” If strained relations with its neighbors have such real political costs for Tokyo, then why do Japanese leaders cling to their delusions?

One possible reason is that they hinge pride in their country on the sacrifices their fathers and grandfathers made fighting in Japan’s Pacific War. Many Japanese have falsely conflated Japanese slogans of “support the troops” with supporting the country’s past militarism. For them, to apologize for Japan’s wars of aggression in Asia, and indeed, to acknowledge war crimes the Imperial Army committed during its invasion of China in 1937, would be tantamount to believing the lives of millions of their countrymen were sacrificed in vain, and that the lives of those enshrined at Yasukuni were wasted.

The vast majority of the interred at the Yasukuni Shrine were fighters in the Pacific War, or what many on the right in Japan continue to call the “Greater East Asia War” – a term banned by the American General Headquarters during its post-war occupation due to the name’s association with Japan’s wartime policies, namely the notion of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

Suspicions about the role of Yasukuni in Japanese nationalism are due in part to Shrine priests secretly adding 1,068 convicted war criminals to the “Book of Souls,” Yasukuni’s official registry. If Japan’s leaders honestly acknowledge the past, the ghosts of Nanjing would be finally laid to rest.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the United States has done a lot to support intellectuals and artists suppressed in China or forced to escape their country. And Japan? The oldest democracy in East Asia, and perhaps its freest society, has been conspicuously silent on free speech in China. This is not just a matter of Tokyo prioritizing economic relations over political rights. Do Japanese perhaps feel they have no right to criticize China because of some historical guilt?

Japan’s national image depends on its people’s pride and sense of self. Japan, without building a base of credibility through acknowledging its wartime aggression, has failed to effect true reconciliation with its neighbors. The efforts of Japanese volunteer doctors, engineers and students from NGOs and charities working in many countries in Asia are undermined by the denials their country harbors. Their moral dedication is misdirected by Tokyo’s denial of the past and the value of their work is cheapened. Without that credibility, Japan cannot take on the international role its people can be proud of, a role commensurate with the country’s greatness.

Japanese denials and distortions of history hurt Japan itself. Moreover, those distortions of history make it easier to identify with nationalist Chinese protests, and harder for Japan to join the world in remembering a shameful chapter in its history as Germany does in remembering World War II and the Holocaust.

 In May 2005, I attended a public dialogue in Seoul in which Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe spoke on the importance of Japan acknowledging its historic wrong doings. He said for Japan to be a full and proper member of the community of East Asian nations, it must properly face its former militarism. Oe observed that true national pride cannot be founded on misrepresenting the past and encouraging collective amnesia about war responsibility.

Until the ghosts of Nanjing are exorcised, Japan cannot achieve its national goal of “normalcy;” it won’t be free from the nightmare of its wartime guilt, until it faces Nanjing’s ghosts. In Asian horror movies, onryo are borne out of a brutal murder. The haunted protagonists in these films free themselves from these maligned spirits only after first acknowledging the crime that made these bitter ghosts. Upon a foundation of honesty and contrition, Japan, too, can free itself, build a solid relationship with its neighbors and take its rightful place as a beacon of freedom in the region.