Divided Memories and Reconciliation: A Progress Report

In February 2008, an international conference was convened at Stanford University at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center to examine the role of high school history textbooks in the formation of historical memory regarding the events of the Sino-Japanese and Pacific wars and their outcome. “Divided Memories: History Textbooks and the War in Asia,” as the conference was titled, was a remarkable gathering of historians and textbook writers, along with other scholars, from China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.

The conference marked the culmination of the first year of Shorenstein APARC’s three-year research project on the formation of historical memory. The project flows from the understanding that unresolved historical issues continue to bedevil present relations in the region. We have seen this most recently in a revived clash between South Korea and Japan over rival claims to a group of islets, an issue left unresolved by the peace treaty that concluded the war in Asia. The United States was drawn directly into this dispute when its geographical name bureau was perceived as offering support for Japan’s territorial claim.
Beyond governments, these disputes over past wrongs continue to occupy the pages of newspapers throughout the region, show up on the screens of movie houses and shape the curriculum of school children. The question of history taps into sensitive and deeply rooted issues of national identity. And rising nationalism feeds on the unresolved problems of the past, undermining the efforts of governments to restore damaged relations.

There is recognition of the need for reconciliation and the resolution of long-standing historical injustices. But the barrier to reconciliation lies, in the view of the scholars of Shorenstein APARC, in the existence of divided, and often conflicting, historical memories. Attempts to create common histories, both through the non-government efforts of historians and through official committees formed between Japan and China and between Japan and South Korea, have had limited success, at best. The Divided Memories project aims to further reconciliation through a comparative study of how the main actors in Northeast Asia—China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—along with the United States, form their view of the past. Recognizing how each society selectively creates its own, divided memory can lead to mutual understanding.