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Home arrow History arrow The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia

Mutual Criticism of Nationalist Commemorations

Observing these joint projects in East Asia, Falk Pingel, a member of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Germany, offered the following reflection: “In East Asia, only Japanese textbooks are accused, while South Korean and Chinese textbooks are exempted from critical discussion. Reform is one-sidedly demanded on the Japanese side, and it seems impossible to establish open relationships for mutual criticism and critical self-reflections on one’s own history.”26 Pingel’s observation serves as an important reminder that facile solidarity on Japan’s part could defeat the very purpose of any joint project—to problematize all relevant nationalist commemorations—but it also underestimates how much historians in Japan, South Korea, and China already engaged in mutual criticism of nationalist biases. For example, Kasahara Tokushi, one of the Japanese participants in the History to Open the Future project, has been vocal about factual errors and nationalist commemorations in history textbooks used in China. While Kasahara acknowledged that Japanese citizens failed to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre adequately, he also urged the Chinese side to “reconstruct ‘their affective and somatic memory’ from the higher perspective of human history,” to pursue more scholarly rigor and move away from politically and ideologically motivated historical interpretations.27

Chinese historians also began to establish a critical distance between themselves and the Chinese government’s official commemoration of the Asia-Pacific War. For example, after the first edition of A History to Open the Future was published in 2005, the Chinese participants received many criticisms from inside China for not specifying three hundred thousand as the number of Nanjing Massacre victims. Nevertheless, they maintained that the estimated number of dead varied according to different sources.28 As Cheng Zhaoqi and Zhang Lianhong, both of whom had participated in the trilateral project, explained, historical research on the massacre has become less emotional in recent years, and Chinese historians have increasingly recognized that more evidence is needed to estimate the number of dead accurately.29

These changes in attitude among Chinese historians were confirmed by Bu Ping, the director of the Center for Modern History within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who had participated in both the History to Open the Future project and other bilateral historical research projects. At an international symposium in Tokyo in April 2008, Bu observed, “Previously, Chinese historians conducted China-centered research and their knowledge of historical materials and research available outside China was inadequate. But this situation is changing. . . . Although many Chinese believe shared historical understanding and reconciliation are impossible, we must make an effort [to achieve them].”30 Moreover, after the 2010 final report of the Japan-China Joint Project was criticized for not stating “more than 300,000” as the definitive number of victims of the Nanjing Massacre, Bu defended the report as the result of “the attitude to base [interpretation] strictly on historical materials,” emphasized the importance of “pooling archival materials and information” between the Chinese and Japanese sides, and reiterated his belief that a “historical view can, and should, transcend national borders.”31

Similarly, at the eighth Forum on Historical Views and Peace in East Asia, held in Tokyo in November 2009, Cao Yi, a researcher at the Museum of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, observed that the Chinese commemoration of the Asia-Pacific War began to go beyond “anger and other feelings associated with being the victim,” given the recent efforts to systematically collect data on Japan’s wartime atroci- ties.32 He then went on to suggest, “China should transcend the facile commemoration of the war motivated by anger toward the aggressor and by the interests of the Chinese people. It will be more rational, though painful, to adopt geographically wider and temporarily longer perspectives in reexamining the history, the reality of Sino-Japanese relations, and the war and its commemoration. But this is exactly what we should aim for.”33 These statements from Cao, as well as Bu, Cheng, and Zhang, show that Chinese historians have recently gained greater freedom to conduct research, despite the Chinese government’s patriotic education and censorship.

In South Korea, too, NGOs that participated in the History to Open the Future project organized a forum in November 2005 to critically reflect on the textbook that they had just produced. At the forum, various participants pointed out that the textbook might have overemphasized Japan’s imperialist aggression, leading South Korean students to believe that Japan is an evil country, and that it could have also included more descriptions of Japanese people’s suffering during the war as well as positive aspects of Japanese history.34

In fact, a small but growing number of South Korean historians began to counterpose their critical reflections to nationalist commemorations in their country. In April 2002, the South Korean monthly journal Contemporary Criticism published three essays critically examining South Korean nationalism with regard to Japanese history textbooks. Ji Su Geol criticized ethnic-nationalist biases in research on modern and contemporary Korean history, while Yun Hae Dong advocated that the national history textbook should be replaced with a new system allowing the production of multiple history textbooks. The journal editor Lim Jie Hyeon, a history professor at Hanyang University, was perhaps most critical: “The South Korean government’s national history textbook and JSHTR’s history textbook clash with each other because they emphasize ethnic identities of South Korea and Japan, respectively. On the epistemological dimension, they are rooted in the same soil—namely, ethnic nationalism.”35

As a member of the Conference of Japanese and South Korean Historians (Nikkan Rekishika Kaigi), Lim was also troubled by the tendency to draw the line between victims and perpetrators along national borders. For him, the task of historians was to articulate “an approach that challenges dichotomous thinking, ‘Our ethnic group (minzoku) is the victim, and the other ethnic group is the perpetrator.’ ”36 Lim therefore insisted, “The asymmetry in historical experience of imperialism and colonialism should not be used simply to criticize the nationalist historiography of Japan while helping to legitimate the nationalist historiography of South Korea. . . . Deconstruction of nationalist historiography cannot be confined within a single country but needs to be carried out simultaneously within East Asia as a whole.”37 Another conference member, Ahn Byung Jik, a professor of history at Seoul National University, was also concerned that “the South Korean memory of Japan’s colonial rule is too rigid and self-contained. A prerequisite for reconciliation [between South Korea and Japan] is to open up the memory. . . . For the purpose of reconciliation, it is not helpful to force one particular historical view.”38

Some South Korean historians even tried to critically reflect on the issue of comfort women, perhaps the most explosive element in the South Korean nationalist commemoration. One of them was Lee Yong Hoon, a professor of economic history at Seoul National University. He was a longtime critic of the South Korean government’s history textbooks, which had contained many overblown sentences, such as “Imperial Japan oppressed and exploited our people in a thoroughly atrocious fashion that has no comparable examples in world history.”39 During a television debate in September 2004, Lee stated that no historical evidence had been found to support the widely held belief that the Japanese military drafted Korean women as “volunteer corps” to serve in comfort stations. He also argued that South Koreans should criticize not only Japan but also Koreans who helped the Japanese military to recruit comfort women, and Korean soldiers who used comfort stations.40 After the television debate, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan condemned Lee for “making statements that only the most extreme right-wing person in Japan is capable of making” and demanded his public apology to former comfort women and his voluntary resignation from the university. A similar controversy erupted in December 2006, when Ahn Byung Jik also stated on television that no historical evidence existed for the forcible recruitment of Korean women, and that Koreans played an important role in recruiting comfort women. He also revealed that he had left the Korean Council’s publication project collecting the testimonies of former comfort women because he had felt that other project members had been “more interested in fighting against Japan than in learning about the historical facts.”41 Just like Lee, Ahn was subjected to heavy criticism from NGOs and citizens in South Korea.

Although these episodes demonstrated that the issue of comfort women was still highly charged with nationalist sentiments in South Korea, they also showed that it had become possible to raise critical questions about the South Korean nationalist commemoration that depicted Japan as solely and entirely guilty for making the Korean people suffer while accepting Korean victims’ testimonies as objective historical truths. In fact, the sixth volume of the Korean Council’s publication project in 2004 dropped the title “Forcibly Dragged Away Korean Military Comfort Women.” The publication team decided to forgo the prevailing one-dimensional representation of

Korean comfort women as forcibly drafted, in favor of historical descriptions that highlighted the complexity of the comfort-women system, its multiple methods of recruitment, and different types of comfort stations.42

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