Colonialism, Invasion, and Atomic Bombs: Asia’s Divergent Histories
Participants carry the portraits of Korean women who were made sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II, during a requiem ceremony for former comfort woman Lee Yong-nyeo (center portrait) in central Seoul August 14, 2013.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Colonialism, Invasion, and Atomic Bombs: Asia’s Divergent Histories


This article is part of The Diplomat’s series exploring historical issues in Northeast Asia in the run-up to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. See the rest of the series here.

On September 3 of each year, Chinese people celebrate their victory over Japan in the Pacific War, which ended in the summer of 1945. This year, which marks the 70th anniversary of that victory, the Chinese government has designated September 3—and the days before and after—a national holiday so that “all Chinese can join the celebration.” The government has also extended an invitation to the leaders of other countries, including North and South Korea, to attend their memorial military parade. However, although they too fought against the Japanese colonial power in the same war, Koreans celebrate the nation’s “day of liberation” from Japanese rule on August 15, not September 3.

For Japan, the day to commemorate (and not to celebrate) is August 6, the day that the U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. A memorial service honoring the victims of atomic bombs, along with a lantern floating ceremony, is held in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to bear wishes for lasting peace and harmony in the world. Meanwhile, the United States officially “remembers” only the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, holding an annual memorial parade and commemoration on December 7.

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The above examples illustrate how differently the countries involved remember and revisit the memories of an unfortunate past marked by war and colonialism in the Asia-Pacific region. For Chinese and Koreans, Japanese acts of aggression, such as the Nanjing massacre, forced labor, and sexual slavery, are the most crucial in their memories of the war. Accordingly, it is only natural for Chinese to celebrate their victory over Japan and for Koreans to celebrate the day on which they regained national sovereignty from the “vicious” Japanese colonial power.

On the other hand, actions related to the United States, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. bombings of Japanese cities, carry the most weight in shaping Japanese war memories. In this context, it is not too surprising that Japanese “choose” to remember the bombing of Hiroshima while downplaying their act of aggression in Asia. For Japanese wartime memories, events in and around China and Korea play only a secondary, if not exactly minimal, role compared to events involving the United States. Conversely, the atomic bombings of Japanese cities and their aftermath are omitted from South Korean history textbooks, and most Koreans do not know that many fellow Koreans, being forced laborers in Japan at the time, were victims of the bombings as well.

It is well known that Northeast Asian nations and the U.S. have often disputed past events arising from colonialism and war. In 1982, for instance, Japanese history textbooks changed the term describing the 1937 Japanese military aggression against China from “invasion” to “advance,” provoking fierce protests in China. This is considered the start of the so-called “history question” in Northeast Asia.

A dominant view of Japanese colonialism in Korea stresses the exploitative and repressive nature of colonial rule, while Japanese often point to some positive “economic” effects of their rule in Korea and Taiwan. Even Koreans and Taiwanese disagree about the nature of Japanese colonialism and its legacy in their societies. On the other hand, while most Americans believe that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war with as few human casualties as possible, many Japanese question the motives underlying such an argument and even entertain the idea of racism. These are only a few examples of the differences in historical memory that exist among Northeast Asian nations and the United States. These memories are actively promoted, contested, and refuted through various means such as textbooks, films, museums, academic and popular writings, and the mass media.

Divided memories of war and colonialism create serious perception gaps and misgivings, hindering historical reconciliation. Consequently, an important first step toward reconciliation is to identify and understand the key factors that influence the formation of historical memory in each nation and to recognize the different weight of these factors. Koreans and Chinese, for example, need to know how and why the victim identity of conservative Japanese elites (unlike their German counterparts) came about and how it has posed a chief obstacle to Japan’s reconciliation with its Asian neighbors. Likewise, Japan must become cognizant of just how central the historical legacy of its aggression has been in shaping the collective identities of Chinese and Koreans. For instance, in Japanese history textbooks, only 4 percent of the coverage of Japan’s modern history (1868-1945) is devoted to Korea; the U.S. is the main player. In contrast, in Korean history textbooks, Japan occupies almost one quarter of the coverage of modern history (late 1800s-1945). In other words, Japan figures far more prominently in the historical memory and identity of Koreans and Chinese than do Korea and China in those of Japan.

Such fractured memories not only persist but have been reinforced in recent years, reflecting deeper forces at work in the region, i.e., the politics of nationalism. In Korea, nationalism has long guided approaches to issues of historical injustice. It has produced master narratives of colonial history and offered a dominant framework for dealing with historical wrongdoings such as comfort women and forced labor. It forces issues to be framed in a binary opposition—victims versus aggressors—and allows little gray area, making it difficult to formulate any other view than a nationalist one.

In China, too, political leaders have promoted nationalism (or patriotism, in their own words) to bolster social and political cohesion. Beijing needs a new unifying force to mobilize the nation in the face of the rapid (and disruptive) processes of socioeconomic modernization. In the post-Tiananmen era in particular, the Chinese leadership has appealed to nationalism to shore up its tainted legitimacy. History activists also appeal to nationalist sentiments by commemorating Chinese suffering during the Japanese occupation. In this context, September 3, a day that was ignored for so long, has taken on a special significance for Chinese.

In Japan, uncertainties and anxieties created by the post-Cold War security environment and years of economic stagnation provided a fertile ground for easy and extreme answers in the form of nationalist politics. Nationalist scholars are making headway in producing textbooks to “make Japanese proud of themselves,” and nationalism is a prevailing theme in the history museum attached to the Yasukuni Shrine, which Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe visited during their tenures despite outcries from neighboring nations and even many Japanese. Rising nationalism has only reinforced victim consciousness among Japanese, making reconciliation with its neighbors more difficult.

The key challenge facing Northeast Asia today is how to tame the power of nationalism and create shared memories of the past. The current impasse in regional relations demands a commitment to confronting the corrosive nationalism fed by the unresolved issues of history. Disregarding the unfortunate past means not only an evasion of historical accountability but also a missed opportunity to learn from history. Germany’s failure to learn from its defeat in the First World War led to the rise of Nazism and World War II. This is particularly important for Japan.

Rather than celebrating their own fractured memories of the past, Northeast Asians should use the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II as an opportune occasion to reflect on their unfortunate past to learn lessons. Only when they are able to celebrate shared memories of war and colonialism can the region, now ridden with conflict, become more peaceful and prosperous.

Gi-Wook Shin is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University and a senior advisor for the Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies at Kyushu University. Shin has led (with Daniel Sneider) a multi-year project entitled “Divided Memories and Reconciliation in East Asia,” which has produced four books and numerous articles.

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