Home History The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
In March 1976, Kurihara Sadako, a poet who had survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, published “When We Say ‘Hiroshima’” (Hiroshima to iutoki).1 The poem asked A-bomb victims, as well as the Japanese people as a whole, the following: “When we say ‘Hiroshima,’ / do people answer, gently, / Ah, Hiroshima’?” Instead of such gentle expression of understanding, Kurihara heard “echoes of blood and fire” and angry voices against Japan for its past wrongdoings: “In chorus, Asia’s dead and her voiceless masses / spit out the anger / of all those we made victims.” But why was the anger of those outside Japan still so resonant thirty years after the Asia-Pacific War had ended? Kurihara’s answer was that it was because the Japanese had failed to adequately remember and atone for the atrocities that they had committed in the Asia- Pacific, while dwelling on their own victimhood. She pleaded, “We first must / wash the blood / off our own hands,” so that others might eventually extend solidarity to Japan’s A-bomb victims in their common pursuit of world peace.
In spite of Kurihara’s plea, “echoes of blood and fire” continue to haunt Japan’s relations with its neighboring countries. Especially with South Korea and China, Japan has been embroiled in intense controversies over the commemoration of the Asia-Pacific War. To name but a few points of contention: interpretations of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, apologies and compensation for foreign victims of Japan’s past aggression, prime ministers’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and Japanese history textbooks. Collectively, these controversies have become known as the “history problem” (rekishi ninshiki mon- dai) in East Asia.
The history problem escalated to an unprecedented scale in 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the Asia-Pacific War’s end, when Prime Minister
Koizumi Junichiro visited the Yasukuni Shrine that honors war dead as well as wartime leaders who were prosecuted as war criminals. In the same year, the Japanese government approved a highly nationalistic history textbook produced by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho wo Tsukurukai) for use in junior high schools. Responding to these events, the governments of South Korea and China strongly criticized the Japanese government, and dislike of Japan among South Koreans and Chinese spiked.2 The Chinese reaction was particularly intense, as large- scale anti-Japanese demonstrations caused damage to the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai and Japanese-owned stores in major Chinese cities.
Although the history problem temporarily calmed down after successors of Koizumi refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, it remains a formidable obstacle in Japan’s relations with South Korea and China. Opinion polls in 2014 showed that about 70 percent of South Koreans and more than 80 percent of Chinese viewed Japan negatively.3 In August 2015, the media and citizens in the two countries also made critical remarks on the statement that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo issued on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the war’s end.4 In turn, the percentage of Japanese who did not feel friendly toward South Korea and China exceeded 60 percent and 80 percent, respectively, according to the 2014 government opinion survey.5
In fact, the history probl em has become potentially more explosive thanks to its intersection with the growing territorial disputes over Dokdo/ Takeshima and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, amid the changing balance of power in the region.6 In August 2012, for example, South Korean president Lee Myung Bak visited Dokdo/Takeshima after the Japanese government refused to discuss compensation for South Korean victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings. Lee’s government also launched a campaign to publicize the territorial dispute as part of the history problem—Dokdo symbolizing the Korean nation victimized by Japan’s past aggression.7 Moreover, when the Japanese government proceeded to officially own the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands in September 2012, the Chinese government cancelled events to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of normalization between the two countries. Chinese citizens, too, staged anti-J apanese demonstrations in major Chinese cities in mid-September, marking the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, which had taken place in September 1931.8
As evinced by these events, the territorial disputes are inextricably tied with memories of Japan’s past aggression for many South Koreans and Chinese. The disputes have also been stimulated by the rising stature of South Korea and China in international society. No longer weak, as they once were in the aftermath of the Asia-Pacific War, the two countries have become more confident and assertive toward Japan, and national pride has increased among their citizens.9 The Japanese government, in turn, has emphasized the importance of patriotism to its citizens to compensate for the economic and political stagnation since the 1990s. Most recently, Abe Shinzo’s government reinterpreted Article 9 of the constitution to expand Japan’s military capability in September 2015, stirring anxiety among people in South Korea and China who still remember Japan’s past wrongdoings. Thus, whether and how the governments and citizens of the three countries can resolve the history probl em has crucial ramifications for the future of East Asia.
But how did the history problem become such a point of contention in Japan’s relations with South Korea and China? Can the three countries resolve the history problem and, if so, how? This book aims to answer these questions, crucial for the governments and citizens in East Asia whose activities are increasingly intertwined at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
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