At a United Nations Security Council open meeting on January 29 on “War, its lessons, and the search for a permanent peace,” international observers were again treated to evidence that the situation in East Asia is anything but a permanent peace. Both the Chinese and South Korean ambassadors accused Japan of glorifying and justifying its imperial past, whether it be through visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, refusing to take a clear stance on the “comfort women” issue (or worse, justifying sexual slavery in wartime), or denying the existence of the Nanjing massacre. They contended that Japan’s lack of reckoning with history has harmed the search for a lasting peace in Asia, on top of the territorial and geopolitical disputes that have already heightened tensions.
Ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, I wrote that given Prime Minister Abe’s steps away from revising longstanding Japanese war apologies, “historical issues are being resolved to China and South Korea’s satisfaction under the Abe government.” That statement flies in the face of today’s realities: history is no longer just a cloud hanging over regional relations, but is becoming a political tool fueling historical resentment into future generations, a troubling development that raises worries that Asia’s future will increasingly be defined by conflict over cooperation.
Worse, the media and education systems in all three countries – the primary means by which most citizens learn of their country’s history and its relations with the outside world – are engaging in self-censorship and constructing nationalistic narratives in lieu of reconciliation. The influence of free academic and media discourse in shaping historical consensus is increasingly compromised across East Asia in favor of a divisive consensus built on nationalism, distrust, and resentment.
In Japan, recent statements by numerous members of the governing board of the NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, allegations of editorial interference by the government in the NHK’s programming, and movements towards allowing alternate views to gain traction in Japanese public education point towards a trend of, at best, allowing historical doubt – a fact of life in academic historical research, but fertile soil for conspiracy theorists, pseudo-academics, and populist sensationalism otherwise – to increasingly dominate national discourse. Nor will this trend abate anytime soon; Prime Minister Abe will remain in power for the next two years, enough for new “standards” in education and media practice to leave their mark.
In an atmosphere of pervasive doubt regarding history in Japan, Chinese and South Korean criticisms of Japanese politicians’ flip-flopping and moral equivocations, however justified, sound less like “speaking truth” and instead more like emotional blackmail for political ends. To demonstrate, while popular perceptions of Japan, South Korea, and China within all three countries have dropped in the past year – with historical revisionism being a major reason for both South Korean and Chinese ire – the rise in anti-Japan criticism in both countries is a major driver for Japan’s growing distance from its neighbors. For Japanese nationalists, foreign calls for historical reconciliation are blatant examples of interference in domestic affairs at best, and an exercise in schadenfreude at worst. From this, China and South Korea infer a continued Japanese commitment to escaping its past – and the cycle of deteriorating public opinion and political antagonism continues.
But while there is little doubt that Japan needs to address and come to terms with its history, if Japan seriously wants to blunt criticism coming from its neighbors, the mention of schadenfreude raises another point – can Chinese or South Korean leaders actually reconcile with a repentant Japan? Here, the legacies of education and media bias in South Korea and China come into play with domestic political incentives for politicians to promote their own, or their regime’s, stability by emphasizing opposition to Japan, their common oppressor.
As China’s economic growth and widening income gap have eroded the promise of Communism, nationalism is increasingly used to hold together a public already critical of the corruption within the Communist Party. This policy has proven to be enticing and lucrative for China’s mainstream media, fond of revisiting Chinese heroism against the Japanese aggressors despite official prohibitions against media content that “incites ethnic hatred.” And through the echo chamber of the Internet, anti-Japanese sentiment finds a wide market, ranging from youth to PLA officials, with analysts worrying that a future CCP will find it too difficult to resist calls to demonstrate Chinese resolve in a “short, sharp war” every time a China-Japan dispute makes headlines. If a Chinese man can be put in critical condition in 2012 simply for driving a Japanese car, what might happen in five or ten years’ time?
For South Korea, the legacy of Japan’s colonization also digs deep into issues of education and memory. South Korea’s complicated history of resistance and collaboration during the occupation – including the fact that many major economic and political figures today benefited from collaboration – has made it difficult for anyone to propose any reconciliation with Japan. Educational policy is as controversial in South Korea as it is in Japan, with conservative publishers receiving boycott threats for “[glorifying] Japanese colonialism [for creating the foundation for current South Korean government institutions] and South Korea’s former dictatorships.”
The depth of the ingrained reaction to any move away from a heroic interpretation of Korean history, solely defined by resistance against Japan, speaks to the pervasive effects education can have on the national consciousness, affecting both domestic and international politics. Lawmakers in South Korea must be wary of any accusation that they seek to make nice with Japan, with a family history of collaboration being enough to prompt calls for resignations or, at the very least, pained public statements by current President Park Geun-hye distancing herself from her father, former President Park Chung-hee. The inability to finalize an information-sharing agreement with Japan was also due to the massive public outrage at the prospect of intelligence cooperation between South Korea and its former colonial master.
More recent South Korean court rulings demanding compensation for forced labor during the occupation broke with earlier South Korean court rulings honoring the 1965 normalization treaty between South Korea and Japan, raising the question of whether history, as understood in South Korea, is not just an issue of sincere apologies but of justice denied, and signaling that retribution is a higher priority than reconciliation. The reaction seems justified given that the repeated actions and words of Japanese nationalists seem calculated to slap South Koreans in the face, but is it pushing Japan towards actually reckoning with its past? The aforementioned survey data would seem to indicate the opposite.
Ultimately, the question underpinning all of these tensions is can Japan atone, and can China and South Korea forgive Japan if it does? Sadly, it appears that the emerging consensus and trend is that Japan is unrepentant, and that China and South Korea will never forgive – so why bother? The disastrous effects of this consensus, and of the distrust it breeds, are painfully obvious given how history is routinely cited for the deterioration of East Asian international relations since 2012.
In East Asia, history has ceased to be a vehicle for creating a common foundation for a peaceful future; history is instead becoming divisive and deterministic, a false prophet that claims that past behavior dictates future character. With education and media in all three countries so deeply influenced by domestic political imperatives, and increasingly complicit in perpetuating a division and distrust, we can easily imagine a future where distrust and worst assumptions increasingly define the character of East Asian relations.
One earnestly hopes for inspired leadership and initiative in Japan, China, and South Korea to begin a long-delayed process of atonement and forgiveness. But given how the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea are settling in for a few more years of unchallenged leadership and not talking to each other, don’t get your hopes up.
Shunsuke Hirose is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).