There are two obstacles to understanding how historical memory about the wartime period has been formed in Northeast Asia. The first is the existence of persistent national myths about war memory—myths created within those nations and perceptions formed from the outside, and entrenched through the media and popular culture. The second obstacle is the lack of comparative context. The study of historical memory has, until recently, been focused almost entirely on Japan, without comparison to other principle actors in Asia such as China and Korea, or to the United States. And while there has been some exploration of the comparison between Japan and Germany, it has been limited.
The existence of distinct historical memories is at the center of Stanford’s project on “Divided Memories and Reconciliation,” begun in 2006 and led by Dr. Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel C. Sneider, a multi-year comparative study of the formation of historical memory regarding the wartime period in Asia. As Shin wrote regarding this project:
“Questions about what happened in the past touch upon the most sensitive issues of national identity, the formation of historical memories, and national myths that play a powerful role to this day. Whether it be Japanese atrocities in China or the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, no nation is immune to the charge that it has formed a less-than-complete view of the past. All share a reluctance to fully confront the complexity of their own past actions and blame others for their historical fates.”
The project’s research examined, in a comparative framework, the impact of education as expressed in high school history textbooks, popular culture in the form of dramatic film, and elite opinion on the formation of wartime historical memory in China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. The comparative study of textbooks, entitled History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia: Divided Memories, edited by Shin and Sneider, was published in 2011 by Routledge. A second volume, examining the impact of dramatic film and other forms of popular culture on the formation of wartime memory, will be published by University of Hawai’i Press. A third book, co-authored by Shin and Sneider, will look at the role of elite opinion in the formation of historical memory in China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. A fourth volume comparing the experiences of Europe and Asia in dealing with wartime memory and reconciliation, the product of an international conference convened in 2011 at Stanford, is now in preparation.
The project has received extensive coverage in Asia, including in China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. It received generous funding from the U.S.-Japan Foundation, the Northeast Asia History Foundation, and the Taiwan Democracy Foundation.