I have a confession to make: I’m sick and tired of Asia’s history wars.
Maybe that’s because I have the privilege of being gainfully employed at The Diplomat, which has long been on top of the region’s history wars (and rightfully so, given their importance to regional affairs). Or maybe that’s because I’m from a country that doesn’t have much of a history and cares even less about the one it does have. Want proof? Historians have termed the century in which America conquered a continent and became the first regional hegemon in modern history its era of “isolationism.” Similarly, America has previously gone to war with nearly all of its most important allies (England, Canada, Mexico, Germany and Japan, as well as France unofficially).
Still, I think at least part of my growing apathy towards Asia’s history wars doesn’t have to do with me at all. Rather, it’s that Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese elites are so transparently stoking historical antagonisms to serve their own ends. That’s not to deny there is genuine anger in all these countries about history, nor do I claim that these grievances aren’t well founded. To the contrary, I find myself understanding where all sides are coming from to some degree (for the record, in the case of Japan, I can understand its “apology fatigue” and sense that it is simply not the same country today as Imperial Japan).
This doesn’t make me any less convinced that much of the recent focus on history is attributable to elites in all three countries stoking historical grievances to serve their own ends. Why am I so sure of this? Because there is a painfully obvious solution to Asia’s history wars that (to the best of my knowledge) hasn’t even been suggested, let alone attempted.
Before getting into what that painfully obvious solution is, let’s briefly take stock of where we stand. On the one side, China and South Korea argue that Japan has never fully acknowledged the atrocities Imperial Japan committed, and that this lack of acknowledgement suggests that Tokyo will commit similar atrocities in the future. They are also angered that Japanese leaders sometimes say or do things that they find insensitive — such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.
Japan counters that it has acknowledged its past crimes repeatedly and refuses to continue doing so since it has received no credit from China or South Korea for all the times it has apologized. As noted above, it also claims that modern Japan bears little to no resemblance to Imperial Japan. Finally, it argues that the past 60 years of pacifism should have demonstrated all of this to China and South Korea.
So how to break the gridlock you ask? It seems to me that the obvious way to try and solve this is for China and South Korea to propose a list of concrete requests for Japanese actions. Then, if Japan complied, Beijing and Seoul would acknowledge that Japan has sufficiently repented for Imperial Japan’s crimes. The operative word here is “concrete.” China and South Korea endlessly call on Japan to do things like take a “sincere attitude” to facing up to its history. But what does that mean exactly? What specifically would Japan have to do for China and South Korea to agree to put history to rest?
By contrast, concrete actions would be more like, “the Japanese prime minister pledges that no sitting premier will visit the Yasukuni Shrine,” “the Japanese government apologizes to ‘comfort women’ and agrees to settle outstanding grievances with them as decided by [insert a mediation court]” and “the Japanese government will acknowledge that Imperial Japanese expansionism was the leading cause of WWII in the Asia-Pacific.” In other words, concrete actions are ones that would allow the Japanese government to understand exactly what was being asked of it. Similarly, they are conditions that one can objectively say have been met or been violated (such as if a future Japanese premier visits the Yasukuni Shrine.)
Of course, there is no guarantee that this would resolve Asia’s history wars once and for all. One imagines that China and South Korea’s initial demands would be excessive, and that Japan would refuse the terms. However, these could then be negotiated bilaterally between the countries. And if Japan reached and successfully implemented an agreement with either China or South Korea, the other country would face pressure to reach its own bilateral understanding with Tokyo.
In any case, the fact that neither China or South Korea appears to have attempted this, nor has Japan seemingly asked them to do so, makes me increasingly cynical about Asia’s history wars. One hopes ordinary Chinese, Koreans and Japanese feel similarly, and begin demanding their governments take these steps to put the region’s history wars where they belong — in the history books, of course.