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Home arrow History arrow The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
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Based on my field analysis of the data, I argue that the history problem escalated not simply because conservative politicians and NGOs in Japan, aligned with the nationalist logic of commemoration, prevented the Japanese government from fully expressing contrition toward South Korean and Chinese victims according to the logic of cosmopolitanism. The history problem was also aggravated by the very proponents of cosmopolitan commemoration, such as left-leaning politicians and NGOs in Japan, that pressed the Japanese government for greater contrition, for they based their commemoration on the Tokyo Trial, which had judged Japan as solely and entirely guilty for the Asia-Pacific War. As a result, even though they succeeded in injecting cosmopolitanism into Japan’s official commemoration, they galvanized Japanese conservatives to reject the cosmopolitan commemoration by denouncing the Tokyo Judgment as “victor’s justice,” and instead justify Japan’s past aggression as an act of self-defense. The Japanese proponents of cosmopolitan commemoration also allowed South Korea and China to maintain nationalist commemorations of their own that glorified their resistance against Japanese aggression and blame Japan alone for the history problem, consistent with the Tokyo Judgment.

I also argue, however, that a crucial corrective has emerged over the last two decades in the form of joint historical research and education projects that promote mutual criticism of nationalist commemorations and reciprocate cosmopolitanism in commemorating the Asia-Pacific War. This growing transnational network of historians and educators began to critically reassess the Tokyo Judgment that had fueled nationalist resentments in Japan and justified one-sided criticisms of Japan by South Korea and China. Indeed, the joint projects have shown the potential to push Japanese citizens to fully commemorate the suffering of South Korean and Chinese victims by confronting the real magnitude of Japan’s past wrongdoings, as well as to encourage South Korean and Chinese citizens to reflect on their own nationalism and commemorate the war, including Japanese victimhood, from a more cosmopolitan perspective.

The following chapters offer a field analysis of how the history problem evolved in East Asia from 1945 through 2015. Chapter 1, “Cross-National Fragmentation,” looks at the period between 1945 and 1964, when the history problem did not yet exist as such because Japan had no diplomatic relations with South Korea and China. During the Occupation led by the United States, the Tokyo Trial prosecuted Japanese leaders for waging a war of aggression against the Allied powers. The Japanese government officially acknowledged its past aggression when it signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty in September 1951, thereby accepting the Tokyo Judgment. Nevertheless, conservative politicians controlling the Japanese government openly rejected the Tokyo Judgment as “victor’s justice.” They instead justified Japan’s past aggression as an act of self-defense and, together with the Japan Bereaved Families Association, honored Japanese war dead as martyrs at the Yasukuni Shrine. Moreover, after the LDP came to power in 1955, the Japanese government increased its control over history education through the Course of Study and textbook inspection. The LDP thus enjoyed robust mobilizing structures and monopolized pol itical opportunities, successfully framing Japan’s official commemoration in nationalist terms. But, at the same time, opposition parties such as the JSP and the Japan Communist Party actively commemorated Japan’s past aggression against Korea and China. Moreover, A-bomb victims and affiliated NGOs began to adopt cosmopolitanism to commemorate all war victims irrespective of nationality, though they initially paid 1 ittle attention to foreign victims of the Asia- Pacific War. Since these political parties and NGOs were outnumbered by the LDP and its supporters, however, they did not influence Japan’s official commemoration.

Chapter 2, “The Growth of Transnational Interactions,” examines the period between 1965 and 1988, when the history problem emerged after Japan normalized its diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1965 and China in 1972. After normalization, Japanese A-bomb victims and affiliated NGOs began to commemorate foreign victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings by extending the cosmopolitan logic that they had previously used for commemorating all war victims. The South Korean and

Chinese governments also pressed the Japanese government to correct nationalist biases in Japanese history textbooks and demanded that Japanese prime ministers refrain from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals were enshrined. Given these growing transnational interactions, the Japanese government expressed remorse for its past aggression on several occasions, revised the Course of Study to increase descriptions of Japan’s past wrongdoings, and provided relief for South Korean A-bomb victims. These actions injected cosmopolitanism into Japan’s official commemoration, though the LDP continued to possess robust mobilizing structures and monopolize political opportunities to defend the nationalist logic of commemoration. Moreover, the South Korean and Chinese demands for a greater degree of cosmopolitan contrition on Japan’s part were coupled with surging nationalist sentiments of their own. In South Korea, ethnic nationalism was energized by the country’s economic success and the democratization movement in the 1980s, and in China, the Communist Party began to promote patriotic education to manage social instabilities created by the Cultural Revolution and economic reforms in the late 1970s. Hence, nationalist commemorations in the three countries were set on a collision course.

Chapter 3, “Apologies and Denunciations,” illustrates how the history problem fully developed between 1989 and 1996, when a major realignment of relevant political actors occurred leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end. First of all, the death of Emperor Hirohito in January 1989 prompted some politicians and A-bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to offer explicit apologies to foreign victims of Japan’s past aggression, wartime atrocities, and colonial rule. Around the same time, Japanese and South Korean NGOs expanded the transnational network to help former “comfort women” demand apologies and compensation from the Japanese government, while Japanese NGOs helped Chinese victims file compensation lawsuits against the Japanese government and corporations. At this historical juncture, the LDP was ousted from power in July 1993. This allowed non-LDP prime ministers to apologize for Japan’s past wrongdoings more decisively than did their LDP predecessors. Thus, political parties and NGOs supporting South Korean and Chinese victims finally gained a political opportunity to introduce cosmopolitanism into Japan’s official commemoration. Nevertheless, the LDP remained the largest political party in the Diet. This persistent dominance of the mobilizing structures for nationalist commemoration undercut the pol itical opportunity for non-LDP prime ministers and forced them to compromise cosmopolitanism with nationalism in Japan’s official commemoration. This compromise intensified the history problem by galvanizing nationalists in Japan as well as in South Korea and China. Japanese nationalists criticized the Japanese government for failing to honor Japanese war dead enough, whereas South Korean and Chinese nationalists criticized it for failing to commemorate South Korean and Chinese victims enough. As a result, the first serious attempt to incorporate cosmopolitanism into Japan’s official commemoration resulted in a negative spiral of mutually reinforcing nationalist commemorations.

Chapter 4, “The Coexistence of Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism,” examines the period between 1997 and 2015, when changes in both domestic and international situations of the three countries made the history problem more complex. The LDP returned to power, but it formed the coalition government with other small parties, while the JSP, a longstanding supporter of cosmopolitan commemoration, was disbanded. Various new actors also entered the field of the history probl em, complicating the landscape of mobilizing structures and pol itical opportunities available for nationalist and cosmopolitan commemorations. Perhaps the best-known new actor was the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, an NGO that promoted “healthy nationalism” in history education by cooperating with LDP members who wanted to reduce descriptions of Japan’s past wrongdoings in history textbooks. At the same time, historians and educators in the three countries initiated joint historical research and education projects to critically reflect on nationalist biases in historiographies and textbooks, and even the LDP-l ed coalition government launched bilateral joint historical research projects with South Korea and China to prevent further escalation of the history problem. Thus, even though the LDP tried to exploit its access to the government and other pol itical opportunities to strengthen nationalism in Japan’s official commemoration, its action was moderated by its coalition partner Komeito and constrained by pressures from South Korea and China. This made up for the decline of mobilizing structures and political opportunities available for proponents of cosmopolitan commemoration. Nationalist commemorations in the three countries continue to fuel the history problem, but they now coexist, in a complex manner, with mutual cosmopolitan commemoration initiated by governmental and nongovernmental joint projects.

The foregoing field analysis reveals one striking pattern in the evolution of the history problem: most of the relevant political actors defined their commemorative positions, explicitly or implicitly, in reference to the Tokyo Trial. Thus, chapter 5, “The Legacy of the Tokyo Trial,” explores why the trial became such a key reference point by critically examining ramifications of its three major problems. First, the trial had elements of victor’s justice because it prosecuted Japan alone for the Asia-Pacific War. This created ambivalence and even resentment among Japanese citizens, keeping them from fully confronting Japan’s past wrongdoings. Second, the trial did not recognize Japan’s victimhood vis-a-vis war crimes of the Allied powers, giving Japanese citizens an excuse for reclaiming and dwelling on their own suffering. Third, the trial blamed only a small number of government leaders for the war and practically absolved Japanese citizens. This government- centered view of war responsibility deprived Japanese citizens of opportunities to critically reflect on their share of war guilt. The first and second problems with the trial, in particular, fueled the Japanese nationalist commemoration by breeding resentment, on the one hand, and justified the South Korean and Chinese nationalist commemorations by identifying Japan as the absolute perpetrator, on the other. All three problems then combined to prevent the majority of Japanese citizens from fully commemorating the suffering of South Korean and Chinese victims according to the logic of cosmopolitanism. The Tokyo Trial therefore needs to be critically reassessed, so that citizens in the three countries can disentangle nationalist commemoration from its problematic legacy and move toward a resolution of the history problem.

Such a critical reassessment of the Tokyo Trial, however, is impossible without historians capable of generating what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “an open dialectic” of historiography and commemoration, which guarantees historical facts and interpretations, as well as national identities, to remain open to dialogues and revisions.45 This open dialectic manifests in the growing joint projects by historians in Japan, South Korea, and China who successfully produced reports and teaching materials that critiqued nationalist commemorations in the three countries. But to what extent can historians actually influence the dynamic and trajectory of the history problem? Chapter 6, “The Role of Historians in the History Problem,” explores this question. Simply put, historians in East Asia have been unable to effectively intervene in the history problem because no adequate mechanisms are institutionalized through which their critique of nationalist commemoration can move the contents of official and public commemorations in a more cosmopolitan direction. This situation is largely engineered by the governments of Japan, South Korea, and China, which control history education through curricular guidelines and textbook inspection. The governments also maintain the education systems that force students to memorize “historical facts” for examinations instead of cultivating skills to critically evaluate historical materials. The future of the history problem therefore depends on whether the three countries can create mechanisms to mobilize historians’ critical reflections for critiquing nationalist commemorations and supporting mutual cosmopolitan commemoration.

In the “Conclusion,” then, I explore how mutual cosmopolitan commemoration, supported by historians’ critical reflections, might facilitate reconciliation in East Asia. To this end, I expand on the “pragmatic” approach to the history problem advocated by pol itical scientists. Jennifer Lind, for example, has cautioned against demanding more apologies from Japan because this strategy risks triggering backlashes from nationalists in Japan, galvanizing nationalist sentiments in South Korea and China.46 Similarly, Thomas Berger has argued that the pursuit of reconciliation over the history problem is not unconditionally desirable, and that any successful reconciliation will require many conditions, including “a degree of reciprocity.”47 I propose to refine the pragmatic approach by anchoring it in principles articulated by pragmatist philosophers, such as John Dewey: a future-oriented, problem-solving approach to the past and reciprocal recognition of humanity among relevant actors. Here, how the governments and citizens in Japan, South Korea, and China should commemorate the past is fundamentally tied with the problem of what kind of international relations they envision for the region’s future. Moreover, while reconciliation requires perpetrators to move away from denial toward admission of their guilt, this in turn requires other parties to affirm the perpetrators’ humanity and thus acknowledge the inhumanities that they, too, suffered in the past conflict.48 How to facilitate such reciprocal recognition of humanity—mutual cosmopolitan commemoration—is one of the most urgent tasks confronting the governments and citizens in the three countries today.

 
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