OSAKA — The public should take a page out of the Europeans’ book and do more to push political leaders to reconcile Japan’s relations with East Asia over historical issues, an expert on European historical reconciliation said at a seminar here earlier this week.
At the seminar, which focused on historical reconciliation efforts in Europe and East Asia, Lily Gardner Feldman noted that citizens in Europe played, and continue to play, an influential role in helping Germany reconcile with its neighbors and with Israel.
Feldman, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, said civil society in postwar Europe greatly aided governments confronting contentious historical issues.
“In the case of history textbooks, for example, civil society, through institutions like the Franco-German Institute, led the way to addressing how World War II should be taught,” she said.
“After years of discussions, a common French-German history textbook was adapted and is expected to be introduced in both countries from next year.”
As for ties between Germany and Israel, the scholar noted that nongovernmental organizations played a key role in paving the way for official reconciliation efforts.
“This has led to the establishment of German-Israeli government commissions looking at how to portray the Holocaust period in both countries,” she said.
In Europe, leading nongovernmental actors involved in the reconciliation process include business, academic, cultural and especially religious leaders. While each has often had its own agenda, common goals are also shared, Feldman said.
“These nonstate actors have been driven by not only motives of moral obligation and a desire to confront the past, but also by pragmatism, whether in the field of commerce, of scientific exchange, or of minority rights,” she said.
One of the key elements of building nongovernmental networks in Germany has been the financial support the networks receive, both in terms of private donations and through official political foundations that are subsidized by the government.
Yuichi Hida, head of the NGO Foreigners’ Assistance Kobe and a member of another group compiling data on wartime forced Chinese and Korean labor, said such cooperation between the government and nongovernmental actors in Japan is currently unthinkable.
“Civil society in Japan remains very weak, and the political will to engage nongovernmental actors in reconciliation efforts is even weaker,” he observed.
Andrew Horvat, visiting scholar to Tokyo Keizai University’s International Center for the Study of Historical Reconciliation, said the overwhelming strength of the Japanese state compared with civil society has inhibited the development of NGOs, making it extremely difficult for them to function as independent conduits to China and South Korea.
“In Japan’s case, most transnational activity in international relations is either in the hands of government-supported organizations or else a handful of large foundations, which must by law report to ‘competent’ governmental agencies,” Horvat said.
Feldman acknowledged the restrictions, but called on Japanese nongovernmental actors to make a greater effort to effect change.
“Why isn’t there any effort to loosen up such restrictions?” she asked. “There does have to be political leadership, and there is an absence of political leadership in Japan on the issue of historical reconciliation. But there has to be leadership from civil society as well.”