East Asia: History Wars

Posted January 4, 2008

Categories: Articles, Asia

Northeast Asia is a relatively peaceful place. Although the Cold War still divides the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Straits, there are no hot conflicts in the region. Negotiators in the Six Party Talks are attempting to solve the major security issues of the region through diplomatic means.

But at another level, wars are being waged in Northeast Asia every day – over history.

For several decades now, China, Japan, and the two Koreas have been battling over their interpretations of 20th century issues. These disputes take place over current territory: between Japan and South Korea over the ownership of Tokdo/Takeshima island and between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

China and Korea, meanwhile, argue over historical territory and who can lay claim to the ancient kingdom of Koguryo. And every time a Japanese prime minister visits Yasukuni – a Tokyo shrine that contains the souls of war criminals – the populations in neighboring countries cry out in protest.

“Right now seems to be a relatively quiet moment in East Asia regarding historical controversies,” observes Daqing Yang, a professor of Asian history at George Washington University (GW) and a participant in a Sep. 15 seminar on historical dialogue and reconciliation sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and GW’s Sigur Center. “But just a few years back, heads of state cancelled their summit meetings because of a visit to a particular shrine in Tokyo or because of history textbooks.”

University of Tokyo professor Hiroshi Mitani agrees. “In the spring of 2005, when younger people in Seoul, Beijing, and other major cities in China made big demonstrations on the street against Japan, I really worried that nations in East Asia might have fallen into a vicious cycle of antipathy that no government could control,” he says. “Fortunately, this wild fire stopped, and political leaders seem to have realized the danger in exploiting historical memories to gain support from domestic public opinion.”

Yet disputes continue, for instance over textbooks. This controversy over history itself has a long history. “The controversy between China and Japan over textbooks cropped up intermittently between the 1910s and the 1930s,” argues University of Tokyo professor Shin Kawashima. At the turn of the century, Chinese textbooks had a distinctly anti- Japanese flavor just as later, in the 1930s, Japanese textbooks acquired a reputation for being anti-Chinese.

In the 1990s, this controversy flared up again with the publication of the Tsukurukai history textbook. This book was a project of a group of Japanese nationalists who, as Hiroshi Mitani recounts, “maintained that Japanese history belonged to the Japanese only and that it was shameful to allow foreign interference into the national history of Japan”. Their textbook downplays the Nanjing Massacre and portrays Japanese wartime actions as liberations rather than invasions.

Although the Tsukurukai textbook generated a great deal of media attention and civic protest, it was far from required reading in Japan. Observes Mitani, the textbook market “share of Tsukurukai was only .04 percent, practically nothing. Contrary to the impression left by the media, Tsurkurukai totally lacked the power to prevail in the textbook market’’.

In response to the brewing disputes over history, historians in East Asia have fought back: with dialogue. “Historical interpretation is at the core of the process of reconciliation,” argues Daqing Yang. “The history of historical dialogue is relatively short in East Asia, especially compared to the more familiar example of Europe. In the mid-1980s, historians from South Korea, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China sat down together to discuss history at international conferences. Since then, international conferences have become much more regular.”

These meetings have led to government-sponsored joint historical commissions. Students from the three countries meet at a summer history camp. And jointly edited textbooks are now available, such as ‘A History for the Future’, which came out in 2005 edited by historians from Japan, South Korea, and China.

Does increased communication among the countries of Northeast Asia promote reconciliation – the “contact hypothesis” of social scientists – or does it merely lead to greater acknowledgment of difference and the reinforcement of seemingly irreconcilable differences.

“I believe that with intelligent tourism and cross-cultural exchange – when someone travels to another country with a desire to do more than shop – obviously a deeper level of learning takes place,” observes historian Alexis Dudden, author of ‘Troubled Apologies: Among Japan, Korea, and the United States’. “That said, the people who develop greater consciousness return home and find themselves on the defensive in challenging their own nation’s national story.”

Ping Bu, the dean of the Centre for Modern history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, tells a story of evolving attitudes. “During the early 1990s, because we know that Japanese were perpetrators against China and Korea, we were afraid: what kind of dialogue are we going to have?” he recalls. “So, when Japanese scholars met with Chinese scholars, we ended up fighting with one another. But now that we understand more of their situation through dialogue, we do not get emotional and get into fights. Now I am totally relaxed when I meet them. These dozen years of experience have been very helpful.”

Dudden, who also served on a joint historical commission, notes that consensus can be reached up to a certain point. During her commission’s tenure, the scholars from the respective countries met and gave papers. “When it came to publication, everyone agreed on the materials up to 1895,” she says. “The minute it hit the modern era, however, the volume didn’t appear.” When joint publications do cover the modern era, Dudden notes, it often looks “like the facing pages of the Korean and Japanese foreign affairs websites – this is their version and this is our version – rather than seeing as history as mutual.”

For Jie-hyun Lim, professor at Hanyang University in South Korea, the underlying motif that has made these historical controversies so intractable are competing notions of victimhood. His interest in this subject was piqued by his study of the Polish case of Jedwabne. In 1941, the Polish Catholic inhabitants of this town killed 1,600 of their Polish Jewish neighbors. For years, Poles maintained that the Nazis were responsible for this atrocity. As Lim notes, Poles “were told that they never harmed their neighbors and that they were invaded by neighbors. As victims, Poles could enjoy a privileged position, a morally comfortable position. Then, suddenly, Poles discovered that their compatriots were perpetrators’’.

Lim compares the Polish situation to Korea, where young people often blame the Japanese for a variety of historical sins but ignore Korean complicity in, for instance, the Vietnam War. From these experiences of collective guilt, Lim draws the conclusion that “people can be responsible only for what they have done. They can’t be responsible for what they didn’t do. On other hand, the younger generation is responsible for the memory of the past. All of us are responsible for the contemporary memory of the past.”

Victimhood, he notes, is not simply a syndrome of the small and the comparatively weak. Lim’s experience in post-September 11 United States and the political use of victimhood to justify the second Gulf War convinced him that even the most powerful countries in the world can exploit their victim status.

Drawing down the competition among victims is not easy. Nor is it only a matter for Northeast Asia countries alone. Alexis Dudden sees an important role for the United States. “The United States and proponents of the U.S. narrative of the end of World War II bear an enormous responsibility,” she notes. “American citizens must understand that the targeting of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki with unprecedented weapons is something we must address and not brush away. Yet each U.S. president has gone out of his way to say annually that the United States owes Japan no apology. This obdurate refusal is to the detriment of U.S.-Japanese relations and to those who want to make Hiroshima and Nagasaki part of an international history and not just Japan’s victimhood status.”

Inter Press Service, September 18, 2008

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