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Can Obama kickstart Asia-Pacific reconciliation?

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In Brief

At the end of this month President Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima. The momentous visit is planned around Obama’s trip to nearby Ise-Shima for the G7 Summit.


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In light of the United States’ consistent pressure on Tokyo and Seoul to bury their own historical debate over the so-called ‘comfort women’, as well as Obama’s initiative to abolish the use of nuclear weapons, this visit is long overdue.

The initial steps towards this visit began back in September 2008, when Nancy Pelosi went to Hiroshima in her role as Speaker of the House of Representatives. In August 2010, then US Ambassador to Japan John Roos made the first official visit by a US government representative. And, in April 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry became the highest ranking US government representative to visit when he attended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on the sidelines of the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting.

Though public support for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is declining, the fact that there is still sensitivity surrounding a US president’s visit to Hiroshima reveals that the so-called history wars are not solely confined to intra-Asian relations. Rather than being a neutral arbiter, or an ‘off-shore balancer’, the United States is deeply involved in the intricacies of how to remember and overcome the traumatic violence of the last century.

Despite the US–Japan relationship being stronger and more integrated than ever, Hiroshima and Nagasaki still represent major obstacles in the way of a complete ‘normalisation’ of bilateral relations. The exhibits at the Yushukan Museum adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine, for instance, continue to blame US security politics for provoking Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Official Japanese apologies and acts of contrition for the attack also remain limited.

The reason for this reluctance to face up and reconcile this unfortunate past lies in the continuing sense of victimisation among all those who were involved in the wars of the 20th century. Victimisation mentalities result from unresolved traumatic experiences. Instead of sharing their grief and collectively coming to terms with the event, actors remain isolated and see the betrayal or humiliation by another as the one and only source of all their problems.

Such ‘ideational isolation’, or solipsism, can lead to actors becoming caught in their own world, calling for the restoration of their dignity and identity. If these impulses are followed through the result may be a replaying of the (violent) past.

The strong US–Japan alliance is a major tool to bridge the subliminal lack of mutual understanding and, possibly, difficulties with intercultural communication that are grounded in disagreements over history. The alliance also alleviates Japan’s isolation in East Asia and secures its place in the international community.

Yet over recent years Asia-Pacific international relations have become increasingly militarised, which has reinforced victim mentalities in some countries. Even the strengthening of the US–Japan relationship has been pursued for strategic security interests rather than for the sake of building multidimensional ‘normal’ ties among neighbouring states.

It is under these circumstances that Obama’s use of US hegemonic power to overcome its own history problems with Japan might help to relax the increasingly tight grip that governments hold on their pasts in and beyond Japan.

Historical reconciliation with Japan will lessen Tokyo’s isolation and diminish the perceived need to secure bilateral relations by military means. And if the US–Japan relationship has a more solid footing, it might be easier for Japanese decision-makers to positively engage their neighbours over history issues in turn.

Even if the Chinese and South Korean ruling elites remain unmoved, shedding some light into the dark corners of 20th-century Asia Pacific history could prove an effective tool in navigating through the stormy waters in the region.

Yet, for the symbolism of President Obama’s trip to be understood across the Asia Pacific, the visit to Hiroshima has to be embedded within a larger message. The inconvenient truths of historical events cannot be forgotten. So-called ‘future-oriented’ policies require first and foremost the acknowledgement that the victimised have been individuals, on all sides, not nations.

By acknowledging the suffering that the nuclear bombs brought to people in Japan, as well as campaigning for the elimination of nuclear arsenals, Obama will be an example of strong US leadership for those still holding on to the memories of the past. If sustained, this approach will be more helpful in maintaining US leadership — and hegemonic stability — in the region than the current military-focused ‘pivot’ to Asia.

Christian Wirth is a Visiting Associate Professor at the Tohoku University School of Law and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.

5 responses to “Can Obama kickstart Asia-Pacific reconciliation?”

  1. Thanks for an insightful analysis of the ways in which unresolved grief over trauma affects how people view their world, the history of their country, and the ongoing dynamics of their leaders’ relationships with each other. Unless a leader has the courage to take a different path in dealing with a trauma he generally perpetuates the solipsistic and self serving perspective that his people have. Willy Brandt did that in regards to the Holocaust and was able to lead Germany into a successful reconciliation with Israel. Obama could start the process with this visit to Hiroshima by expressing sadness and even some contrition over the damage that the atomic bombs wreaked on the Japanese people. Even better would be if he met with some of the survivors. He could not fail to be moved by their stories of suffering and survival.

    One can also hope that Obama will continue on his quest for a nonnuclear weapon world after he leaves the Presidency. What a legacy that would be to his having won the Nobel Peace Prize!

    • Dear Richard

      Thank you for the comment. I also hope Barack Obama will continue to work towards the reduction of nuclear arsenals after the end of his term. Moreover, it will be interesting to see whether Prime Minister Abe will travel to Pearl Harbor in return for Obama’s Hiroschima visit.

  2. I do not know what Prof. Wirth means by “a complete normalisation of bilateral relationship, as I guess he means between the United States and Japan. If the two countries have not reached it, it is not because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    I feel Prof. Wirth puts undue weight on the exhibits of the Yushukan Museum, that is, on Japanese nationalists, as Prof. Jennifer Lind said online in Japan: the Never Normal, Asia Unbound,

    A horse comes before the cart. The US-Japan strategic relationship has been pursued because the two countries share with South East Asian countries the common political interests in preserving liberal order in this area. I do not know if Japan is isolate in East Asian politics, as Prof. Wirth seems to say. The South East Asian countries want the strong US commitment to be kept and Japan’s alliance with the US to be more committed.

    I do not think official Japanese apologies and acts of contrition remain limited. North East Asia is full of noisy propaganda. For this, I posted comments on Project-Syndicate. org/Aryeh Neier/Hiroshima With or Without Remorse?. I (Michi) also sent a comment, titled It Is Not China’s Fault, Nov. 16, 2015, Michael Pilsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon, amazon usa.

      • Dear Mr. Moriyama

        Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that Northeast Asia is ‘full of noisy propaganda’ and that the question of apologies is very complex.

        The point by Jennifer Lind that you quote is valid to some extent, too. Yet, isn’t this exactly the result of Japan being rather isolated (and isolating itself) in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific? The only ‘anchor’ for Japan, really, is the relationship with the United States and maybe to some extent the recently growing ties with Australia and some Southeast Asian countries.

        Unfortunately, however, these are increasingly based on so-called strategic imperatives, that is, rather narrowly conceived traditional security issues. This is where I have a different perspective from yours.

        Policies based on national (or civilizational) security cannot improve relations with other countries. To the contrary, they help to maintain or even create rivlas and enemies – to some extent they even need enemies. So, for example, we are not sure what was first, the US-Japan alliance to address a common threat, or the need of a common threat to keep the US and Japan together and alliance-focussed. It’s like the question of what was first, the hen or the egg. The right answer is that both the hen and the egg together form a certain kind of system.

        Certainly it is not possible – even an oxymoron – to uphold a liberal order by military means. To the contrary: A focus on national security will invariably limit civic liberties and reduce the quality of democratic rule. Unfortunately that is what has been happening in the Asia-Pacific and in Northeast Asia, since 9-11, and especially since around 2012.

        That is why, to answer your first question, I think that ‘normal’ relations between Japan and the US should be much more than just a military alliance and quite different from the ‘normal’ Japan that most security specialists are talking about. In this regard, Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and – hopefully – a reciprocal move by Prime Minister Abe to visit Pearl Harbor, are very much desirable.

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