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Northeast Asia must cast off the shackles of history

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In Brief

The 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II offers an opportunity for Northeast Asia to reflect on the lessons learnt from the past and to forge a vision for a peaceful and prosperous future.

The Northeast Asian countries should encourage domestic debate on the facts of history and their moral implications for today.


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Each nation has its own unique historical experiences that influence reflections on the past, and create heroes and villains in the present. But only free and open discussion of interpretations can give people a full and nuanced understanding of their history.

Some revelations — such as the ‘comfort women’ issue — are likely to expose complex legal consequences, demand difficult political choices and raise uncomfortable moral questions for contemporary leaders. But any attempt to conceal the facts of history or deflect moral responsibility for past events will only delay the necessary reconciliation within and between Northeast Asian countries.

Any country’s attempt to influence the history discourse in its neighbours, even if well intended, will be hazardous and counterproductive. The best that each nation can do is to share its understanding of its own history with its neighbours through bilateral and multilateral dialogue. No country needs to feel slighted, dishonoured or threatened during these conversations.

Tensions also rise from the many territorial disputes in the region. The disputes directly and immediately affect states’ sovereignty claims and may compromise the political credibility of contemporary leaders. While the disputes have an economic element, the symbolic and sentimental values that they represent are arguably more important. If one country’s prospects of recovering ‘lost territories’ are dashed because of their neighbour’s intransigence, or through brute force, this could fuel a sense of injustice.

Political leaders need to approach such disputes pragmatically and place them in a broader framework of international relations. They should consider ‘shelving’ territorial claims in favour of cooperative behaviour. Countries could jointly develop natural resources, establish an ecological park or conduct joint scientific research on and around disputed islands. But they should first declare the non-use of force and demilitarise the disputed areas, thereby reducing tensions and preventing accidental clashes.

Japanese leaders should also refrain from visiting Yasukuni Shrine while they are in office. As long as they are holding public office, the claim that visits to the shrine are ‘private affairs’ is simply not credible. Instead, the Japanese government should pay respects to the war dead at a public, non-religious facility.

Such services could also include prayers for non-Japanese who have suffered under Japanese imperialism and militarism. This way, they could provide an opportunity for Japanese leaders to offer public apologies, express their remorse and demonstrate their atonement for the nation’s past deeds. They could also appeal to the universal yearning for peace. At the same time, South Korean and Chinese leaders should accept any sincere remorse, contrition and apologies by Japanese leaders in such a venue for what they are.

But if past records are any indication of the likely reaction of Japan’s neighbours, expressions of atonement and offers of apologies by Japanese political leaders are probably not enough to gain the trust of their neighbours. Japan should engage actively in trust- and confidence-building efforts with its neighbours. Northeast Asia has much to learn from the successful experience of postwar Germany and Europe. This is often invoked when discussing Japan’s reconciliation — or lack thereof — with its neighbours.

Northeast Asia should also look to the example of reconciliation and cooperation in Southeast Asia. Once a conflict-ridden region, the ASEAN region is now on its way to becoming an economic community. ASEAN’s efforts to build mutual confidence since its establishment in 1967 have paid substantial peace dividends. ASEAN serves as the core institution upon which layers of multilateral cooperation have been built. Although there are doubts about its effectiveness, there is no question that the ASEAN-centred multilateral dialogue has been instrumental in building confidence, preventing conflict and expanding economic ties among the Southeast Asian countries and beyond.

Northeast Asian countries should take pride in the depth of economic integration they have achieved through their trade and investment activities. They have accomplished this feat without the top-down, politically guided regional scheme seen in Europe. Instead, market forces driven by corporate initiatives and individual entrepreneurship have guided integration. The resulting economic development and transnational economic linkages have fostered civil society development as well as cross-national social and cultural contacts.

Northeast Asian leaders should further nurture these developments. They need to make further progress on regional economic cooperation, by establishing bilateral and multilateral trade and investment regimes to accelerate the process of regional economic integration. If they continue to work together, Northeast Asian leaders can realise their hopes for the region’s future.

Tsuneo Akaha is Professor of International Policy Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

4 responses to “Northeast Asia must cast off the shackles of history”

  1. “Any country’s attempt to influence the history discourse in its neighbours, even if well intended, will be hazardous and counterproductive. The best that each nation can do is to share its understanding of its own history with its neighbours through bilateral and multilateral dialogue.”

    The scenario you present as best for facilitating bilateral and multilateral discussions of history wouldn’t accomplish much of anything.

    If one nation, say Japan, shares its own interpretations of the “comfort women” issue, but is then not open to considering the interpretations of others, then it would simply result in a self-serving monologue for Japan.

    • And what say you if the Chinese and the Koreans also shared their interpretations with the Japanese?

      If the three peoples cannot or will not be open about their own history or their neighbors’ from their respective perspective, then maybe they don’t deserve to be peaceful or prosperous.

  2. “And what say you if the Chinese and the Koreans also shared their interpretations with the Japanese?”

    This is exactly what should be done. I agree with you and each side needs to be more open-minded to the concerns of others.

    But what you suggest in the quote that I used in my first comment is that all involved should SHARE interpretations of history but not try to INFLUENCE the interpretations of others.

    You can’t resolve conflicts about history that way. That would just result in each side staking out opposing views and sticking to them, which has been precisely the case for decades.

    That wouldn’t foster bilateral or multilateral discussions. It would simply result in self-serving monologues and continued bad feelings among China, Japan and Korea.

    For example, if China presents exaggerations and distortions of the Nanjing Massacre, including inflated casualty numbers, then Japan should share any proof it has to the contrary to show the Chinese their errors and get them to change.

    At the same time, if the Japanese side tries to say that there was no such massacre and the killings and rapes were just a part of normal warfare, then China should try to rebut Japan’s position by sharing what evidence it has to the contrary and influence Japan’s interpretation of that chapter in history.

    • Thank you, Patrick, for your comments. Real two-way communications, as you suggest, would be ideal. But my approach would be more indirect. That is, each country sharing its narrative or narratives (as there may be more than one in a democratic society) and how it has developed the narrative or narratives would encourage or stimulate discussion in the other two countries about them along with their own perspectives. Why such indirect sharing of national narratives? There are three reasons. First, Japan, China, and South Korea have tried bilateral history committee approach and the results have been largely negligible. In fact, there has been a great deal of frustration and resignation even that such efforts are futile, leaving each side bitter and disappointed. I supported the idea of the bilateral efforts, but, again, the results have been disappointing. Second, any overt attempt by any one of the three countries to try to persuade another country’s understanding of history, however well intentioned it may be, is very likely to backfire or be counterproductive in the atmosphere of exclusive nationalism and absence of trust and exacerbate their relations. Third, there is no realistic prospect for any one of the countries opening up its documents to official investigation by foreign scholars, not only in China but also in ROK or Japan. The more realistic approach, in my view, is exchange of each country’s narrative(s) — and the emergence of political leaders in each country who realize the cost of not reaching reconciliation and are willing to take a pragmatic approach to the development of trust and confidence through joint efforts to resolve problems of common concern, of which there are quite a few.

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