Arguments over the past among nations are a sure sign of anxieties about the future. East Asia’s shared history generates and amplifies antagonisms in ways that poison regional relations, cloud the future and powerfully shape how governments cope with contemporary crises. Anti-Japanese outbursts in China in recent years demonstrate just how much the past matters as tempers flare over textbooks that downplay Japanese atrocities and provocative gestures such as Former Prime Minister Koizumi’s six visits to Yasukuni Shrine. They also reflect the consequences of Beijing’s emphasis on patriotic education vilifying Japan.
The editors remind us that the prospects for enhanced regional cooperation are dim because “A specter is haunting East Asia, a specter of the memories of the past, resurrected by the resurgence of nationalism.” They argue that these rival nationalisms are on a collision course because “the past is haunting the present, aborting as stillborn any hope of reconciliation.”
This volume features 12 chapters by 11 authors from Korea, China, Japan and the United States that focus on the hot-button history problems that divide Northeast Asia. The breadth of coverage based on in-depth and objective scholarly analysis helps readers understand why recriminations over the past trump efforts to create a regional community.
Thomas Berger raises questions about why in “dealing with the past, Japan is widely viewed as incorrigible . . . . a moral dunce, whose obstinate denial of guilt has damaged its own interests.” He also questions the perception that Germany is the model penitent, arguing that it took 40 years for it to become resolutely contrite. A lonely voice of optimism, he sees possibilities for Asia to emulate Europe in managing tensions over history.
In contrast, Gilbert Rozman is pessimistic about the prospects for reconciliation, pointing to the difficulties presented by postponing a reckoning throughout the Cold War. Currently, he sees little inclination among regional adversaries to make up for lost time on reconciliation as they remain highly emotional about their shared history.
Kazuhiko Togo explores the polarization over history among Japanese regarding 10 controversial issues such as the comfort women, the Nanjing massacre, forced labor, POWs, Unit 731, textbooks, apology, war responsibility, Yasukuni Shrine and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. He concludes that despite a general feeling of remorse among Japanese regarding wartime atrocities, “this feeling has not found meeting ground with the other urge to protect pride and honor in Japan.” This observation is true, but Oe Kenzaburo, a Nobel laureate in literature, elsewhere asserts there can be no pride or honor in denial and shirking responsibility. Togo correctly concludes that Japan’s discordant discourse sends a mixed message to Japan’s victims, raising questions about the sincerity of its formulaic apologies.
Significantly, Togo raises the possibility of reparations for forced labor. He argues that the Supreme Court has effectively closed off victims’ recourse to judicial remedies, essentially providing legal immunity that could pave the way for the government and corporations to seize the initiative on reconciliation. This binding immunity was key to German reparations initiatives and thus there is some sliver of hope Japan can seize the moral imperative.
Although textbooks have been the focus of bitter recriminations, Hiroshi Mitani, an author of Japanese textbooks, discusses tri-national collaborative efforts to create common teaching materials. These efforts led to publications that give students access to divergent views that help them to better assess their national narratives, but alas they are not much used.
Akihiko Tanaka elucidates how the Yasukuni issue has evolved in the post-World War II era, especially since the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals in 1978. He concludes that Koizumi did not win or lose in terms of his repeated Yasukuni visits, but certainly Japan as a whole lost a great deal in the court of global public opinion. Moreover, by digging Japan such a deep diplomatic hole, Koizumi derailed regional reconciliation initiatives and ensured there was little top-level contact to manage the geopolitical tensions caused by a major shift in power toward China during his tenure.
Zhu Jianrong, a Chinese scholar working in Japan, draws our attention to the role of Japan in shaping and instigating Chinese nationalism. He writes, “The war against Japan was thus the most important defining moment for the burning aspiration of the unified Chinese nation-state, and the bitter memory of the war, experienced by all levels of Chinese society, formed the basis of Chinese national consciousness.”
Cheol Hee Park also identifies anti-Japanese sentiments as the foundation of Korean nationalism, but argues that these have attenuated and doesn’t believe Korean political leaders today gain much from Japan-bashing. In his view, anti-Japanese movements have a limited impact and are exaggerated by the media.
This stimulating collection reminds us just how tricky it remains for East Asian nations to navigate the recent past and how resilient their differences over history remain. The editors conclude that it is incumbent on Japan to assert leadership in reconciliation and this involves restraining revisionist provocations and assuming the burdens of its history.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.