Political relationships in East Asia remain hostage to history, with historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with history weighing down ties even between America's closest regional allies — Japan and South Korea. Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's return to power in a snap national election in December 2012, these two countries face a stark choice: find ways to stem the recrudescence of bitter disputes over history or stay locked in a frozen political relationship that plays into China's hands.

Indeed, no country loves to play the history card more than China, as illustrated by its recent declaration of two new national days to remember Japanese aggression. Not content with the other days it has dedicated to remembrance of its long conflict with Japan, China designated Sept. 3 as "War against Japanese Aggression Victory Day" and Dec. 13 as Nanjing Massacre Day. But what if the victims of China's aggression since 1949, such as Vietnam and India, dedicated days to commemorate Chinese attacks on them?

Although history is never an objective chronicle, it greatly shapes national narratives. In East Asia, the "history problem" has spurred a resurgence of competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms.