East Asia’s Discourse Problem
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

East Asia’s Discourse Problem

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“It is extremely disappointing and regrettable…(An) is a terrorist who was sentenced to death. The collaboration between South Korea and China will not contribute to building regional peace and cooperative relations.”  

- Yoshida Suga, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, responding to the opening of a memorial to An Jung-geun at Harbin train station.

Tokyo’s Terrorist, History’s Freedom Fighter

Ito Hirobumi was a cosmopolitan diplomat and prominent political leader of Meiji Japan. An elder statesman by the time of his death, Ito had played a crucial role in Japan’s Meiji Restoration, helping establish the country’s national strength and rapid modernization in the face of Western imperialism. Cloaking naked aggression in the language of free trade and most favored nation status, Western imperial powers fractured the formerly Sinocentric East Asia, carving out spheres of influence and imposing unequal treaties in the process. Ito and other Meiji leaders rapidly acclimated themselves to and adopted Western conceptions of sovereignty (meaning de jure equality but de facto inequality, or organized hypocrisy). They did so to overturn the unequal treaties to which they themselves had been subjected, but also to then impose the same on their Asian neighbors. This was openly and exuberantly discussed at the time. The Korean Peninsula, the perennial dagger pointed at the heart of Japan, was considered a natural target for strategic, prestige-based and economic reasons.

A revolutionary nationalist-cum-colonialist, Ito would (quite literally) lead the way into Korea. Professor Young Ick Lew writes: On November 17, 1905, Ito entered the Korean royal palace at the head of armed Japanese soldiers, threatened King Kojong and his various ministers, demanded they sign the draft protectorate treaty that Japan itself had written up, dragged Prime Minister Han Kyu-sol from the building for daring to oppose the move, and, lastly, forcibly removed the official state seal from the foreign ministry building, affixing the same onto the Japan-drafted treaty with Japanese hands, solidifying Korea’s subordinate status. Following this “ratification” process, Ito served as the first Japanese resident general of Korea. This was a precursor to full annexation five years later, thus beginning 35 years of rapacious and tectonic colonial rule.

An Jung-geun, a committed activist for Korean independence, shot and killed Ito four years later at the Harbin train station. Viewed from this perspective, An Jung-geun appears far more of a freedom fighter than a terrorist.

There is an ongoing (and never-ending) debate among political scientists as to what exactly constitutes terrorism. The debate is very nuanced and has led to numerous definitions. These are not the focus here. Nevertheless, one common thread exists in several definitions and, more importantly, in the popular psyche. This is that, crudely put, terrorism is by its very nature illegitimate violence. This, undoubtedly, is what Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga had in mind when he called An Jung-geun a terrorist. Conversely, the victim, Ito, represents the legitimate side of the equation. Where the terrorist is wrong, the victim and what they represent is right (a gross oversimplification that would cause the aforementioned political scientists to shudder). The historical summary above strongly undermines such a misguided interpretation.

Diplomatic Disputes & Deeper Dilemmas

China’s recent move to open an exhibition room housing a memorial to An Jung-geun highlights both its close relationship with Seoul and its desire to put pressure on the Abe administration. The memorial to Ito Hirobumi’s assassin, at once welcomed by Seoul (which views An as a national hero) and criticized by Tokyo, exacerbates contentious relations in the region and in that sense is not particularly constructive. However, there is a darker undercurrent to this particular diplomatic spat.

Tokyo’s use of language (calling An a terrorist) betrays two disturbing trends: an abiding unwillingness (among some) to acknowledge the profoundly rapacious nature of its imperial past (of course, a characteristic of all imperialisms) and, even more galling, the use of language that was employed by Japanese colonial forces. Why would Japan not only continue to resist acknowledgement of the true nature of its imperial past, but recycle such language as an advanced democracy in 2014? On its face, the answer appears clear. It is the same variable that drives Beijing to build such monuments and Seoul to praise them: nationalism. That said, Japan’s unabashed use of such language is inexcusable, not only because it explicitly regurgitates defunct imperial rationales a century after the fact, but does so as a justification for not addressing the wounds brought about by the same imperial crimes. It utilizes broken and violent language to justify a broken and profoundly inadequate interpretation of the past.

There is no lack of nationalist-driven myopia in Northeast Asia these days. The DPRK is the most emphatic and solipsistic iteration thereof. Meanwhile, China continues to assert itself in the region from the South China Sea to its ADIZ. Beijing is seemingly determined to erase the shame of a century of humiliation at the hands of more powerful external forces. Added to this, Beijing continues to act with a notable lack of transparency as a politically authoritarian system. Yet, these same points make Tokyo’s own language all the more vexing. Japan is a democracy. It is a country in which the free interplay of ideas and critique are valued for their own sake.  Japan’s criticism against China for its assertiveness and lack of transparency is fine as far as it goes. However, this same criticism should compel Japanese policymakers to refrain from using such myopic and chauvinistic language.

What this all shows is the power of nationalism and the perennial difficulty of foreign policy making in a democracy, a difficulty all the more manifest when a liberal polity confronts an illiberal one. Yet the Sino-Japan relationship is only one side of the story. Seoul is also intimately involved and is, like Tokyo, a democracy. This makes the Abe Administration’s outspoken and blinkered view of history even more questionable.

Even if Tokyo considered An a terrorist at the time of Ito’s assassination, which it undoubtedly did, recycling such language in 2014 is an affront to historical accuracy. It abjures moderation for chauvinism. Instead of acknowledging and explaining difficult realities (the stuff of real statesmanship and diplomacy), it resorts to empty and cheap emotional appeal. We can expect this from the Kim Dynasty and its propagandists in the DPRK, but if democracies have something advantageous going (which they absolutely do) they should act the part.

Japan’s Heisei generation does not feel the shadow of history the way its fathers and grandfathers did. Furthermore, they are understandably and rightfully eager to push toward a more normal international role for Japan. The Abe Administration is primed to push beyond two decades of stagnant economic performance and tumultuous domestic politics, and, further, to present a strong front to an increasingly assertive China. None of this is controversial. It is to be expected. But Tokyo’s policymakers must not lose sight of the fact that while they may be eager to move beyond Japan’s deeply constrained postwar position, the process is fraught with potential pitfalls. Even under the best of circumstances, Beijing and Seoul are going to be unsettled by the process. (to be fair, Chinese and Korean policymakers also face the responsibility of swallowing national pride in order to constructively engage Tokyo’s national interests.) Whatever the best of circumstances looks like, Tokyo’s irresponsible use of such language cannot be part of it. It cuts against Japan’s avowed desire to take a greater internationalist role and its own democratic values.

Since the end of the Cold War, scholars have debated whether Europe’s past will be Asia’s future. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself recently cited the parallels. With the centenary of WWI in full swing, the comparisons are bound to continue. Whatever the finer points of the debate (and this author strongly doubts the efficacy of the comparison), more enlightened leadership on the part of Tokyo is necessary to avoid such a future. Systemic factors and shifts in the relative balance of power will (as always) create difficulties, but the threat of misperception, miscalculation and escalation are driven by states’ behavior. In Alexander Wendt’s inimitable phrase: Anarchy is what states make of it. Thus the language leaders use and the way they orient themselves toward “The Other” is crucial. In this sense, Japan must not forget their own past or utilize unsavory aspects of the same to justify an amnesiac and deeply troubling nationalism.

Clint Work is a Seoul-based writer focusing on Northeast Asian international relations, history and political economy, U.S. foreign policy in North East Asia, and U.S.-Korean relations.

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