Gi-Wook Shin: How can Northeast Asia resolve its history wars?

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine in Dec. 2013.
Photo credit: 
Reuters/Toru Hanai

Northeast Asia is a global center of economic dynamism, propelled by phenomenal growth in social and cultural interactions among the region's nations. Still, wounds from past wrongs, committed during times of colonialism and war, have not yet fully healed, and the question of history has become a highly contentious diplomatic issue. After one and a half years in office, the leaders of China and South Korea (Korea hereafter) still refuse to hold bilateral summits with their Japanese counterpart, largely due to disputes over the past. Questions about history touch on the most sensitive issues of national identity, making it very difficult for countries to compromise.

How should we understand and approach current historical tensions in Northeast Asia? Pessimists worry that the legacies of the past will persist and that there is not much we can do about it. Optimists believe that these issues will inevitably fade over time as the wartime generation passes away and the countries of the region become increasingly integrated economically and culturally.

Last summer, I had an opportunity to deliver a special lecture series at a Korean university. More than 30 students from China, Japan, Korea, the U.S. and Europe attended the lectures, which focused on problems related to the modern history of Northeast Asia and territorial disputes. I asked students whether they thought Japan had apologized for its past actions of aggression. Korean and Chinese students mostly replied that Japan had either "not apologized at all" or was "not sincere." In contrast, most Japanese students were hardly aware of the misfortunes of the past and the controversies about the government's stance.

The historical amnesia of Japanese students is most worrisome, but the insistence by Chinese and Korean students that the Japanese have not apologized at all is troubling, too. Although the definition of "apology" may vary depending on circumstances, it is undeniable that Japanese leaders, including prime ministers, have directly expressed regret about Japan's actions of aggression to Koreans and Chinese. Of course, legitimate doubts arise in Korea and China as to Japan's sincerity. More than once, a prime minister's apology has been undercut by the denial of wartime responsibility by his education minister, or by a subsequent visit by the prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine to Japan's war dead.

My teaching experience illustrates the danger posed by a crucial gap in perceptions. History does not merely narrate events or developments. In reconstructing the past, it is inevitable that certain parts are omitted or stressed, producing different views. Divided historical memories separate nations, resulting in distinct, often contradictory, perceptions. Those perceptions become deeply embedded in the public consciousness, transmitted to succeeding generations formally by education and informally through the arts, popular culture and mass media.

Time isn't a cure-all

Why have these nations developed distinct, and incomplete, memories of the wartime period?

One common answer is that Japan was an aggressor while China and Korea were victims, but this is too simplistic to explain the complexities of modern history and collective memory in Northeast Asia. Different events acquire disproportionate weight in the formation of each nation's historical consciousness. For China and Korea, Japanese acts of aggression -- such as the Nanjing Massacre or forced labor and sexual slavery -- constitute the most crucial elements. For Japan, events related to U.S. actions, such as the firebombings of Japanese cities or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are more important. Korea and China are a less significant element in Japan's memory, while Japan looms large in theirs.

Japan's focus on U.S. actions, over the sufferings of Koreans and Chinese, explains the country's historical amnesia and reluctance to come to terms with its Asian neighbors. Unlike Germany, postwar Japan developed a mythology of victimhood, shaped by the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the massive incendiary and atomic bombings of its cities. Victim consciousness provided fertile soil for the growth of postwar neo-nationalism that justified colonialism and war and denied Japan's responsibility for atrocities.

Balanced historical memory with a better understanding of the perspective of the other side is urgently needed. Japan needs to clearly comprehend the mindset of its neighbors, instead of complaining about its "apology fatigue." China and Korea are also responsible for educating their citizens about Japan's own struggle to come to terms with its past. That kind of mutual understanding rests on resuming efforts at joint historical study with a commitment to open-minded debate. Only then can the nations of Northeast Asia begin to narrow perception gaps and forge a shared view.

This is a task not only for governments but for civil society. We should encourage exchanges among young people from the three countries, including joint visits to historic sites such as the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Seodaemun Prison History Museum in Seoul. Such gatherings would constitute a regionwide attempt to share and heal the pains of the past. Disregarding or ignoring dark events means not only evading historical accountability but also missing the opportunity to learn from history. Germany's failure to learn from its defeat in World War I led to the rise of Nazism and another world war. The German experience should provide a valuable lesson for all, especially Japan.

We cannot depend on time alone to heal these wounds. When issues of the past posed a stumbling block in improving relations between China and Japan in the 1970s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said, "Because our generation is not wise enough to resolve all of the pending questions, let's leave the unsettled ones to the next generation." Contrary to his expectations, however, the two countries are stricken today with a worse situation involving history and territorial disputes, and the younger generation tends to be even more swayed by the fever of nationalism.

This is a moment of both danger and opportunity for Northeast Asia. The current impasse in regional relations demands a commitment to confronting the corrosive nationalism fed by the unresolved issues of history. As the wartime generation passes from the scene, they are called upon to leave behind a wiser generation capable of realizing the potential of Northeast Asia to be the center of the 21st century.

This article was originally carried by Nikkei Asian Review on 25 July and reposted with permission.