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The History Problem as a Collision of Nationalist Commemorations

In essence, East Asia’s history probl em is a set of complexly entangled controversies over how to commemorate the Asia-Pacific War. But “the Asia- Pacific War” is itself a complicated term. Historians who adopt the term disagree whether it should refer only to the Asia-Pacific theater of World War II (1941—1945) or include the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937—1945).10 Some Japanese historians also advocate “the Fifteen-Year War” (1931—1945) as an alternative term to capture the connection between the Mukden Incident in Manchuria (1931—1933), the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Asia-Pacific war theater. Others think that “the Greater East Asia War” (1941—1945) is historically most accurate because the term was used by Japan’s wartime government. Above all, people outside Japan understand the historical period differently in terms of their own sense of temporality based on histories of resistance against imperial aggression and fights for inde pendence that preceded and followed “the Asia-Pacific War.”11

In this book, I use “the Asia-Pacific War” in a broad sense, to refer to the Mukden Incident, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Asia-Pacific war theater. This is because when people both inside and outside Japan speak of Japan’s “past wrongdoings” (kako no ayamachi), they often refer to events that happened between 1931 and 1945, such as the invasion of Manchuria, the Nanjing Massacre, and the military “comfort women” system. Thus, using either “the Asia-Pacific War,” in the narrow sense, or “the Greater East Asia War” would leave out important points of contention from my analysis of the history problem. I also prefer the broad version of “the Asia-Pacific War” to “the Fifteen-Year War” because the former better captures the geographical scope of the history problem. Of course, “the Asia-Pacific War,” even in the broad sense, risks downplaying the South Korean perspective on the history problem that includes Japan’s colonial rule (1910—1945), but I believe that this risk is minimal so long as Japan’s wartime atrocities against Koreans are fully understood as coterminous with its colonial rule.

Just as “the Asia-Pacific War” is a complicated term, the “history problem” is a complex phenomenon and hard to pin down because it consists of multiple controversies dealing with diverse issues, ranging from the Yasukuni Shrine to history textbooks, that have political dynamics and historical trajectories of their own. In this sense, it may be more appropriate to translate rekishi ninshiki mondai as “history problems” in the plural. Nevertheless, these multiple controversies are historically homologous—tracing back to Japan’s actions during the Asia-Pacific War—and inextricably entangled to form a more or less bounded domain of public debates and policy problems.

Moreover, the controversies are structurally homologous in the sense that they pertain to commemoration, an act of remembering the past to construct what sociologist Maurice Halbwachs called “collective memory.”12 On the one hand, collective memory is internal and psychological, consisting of mnemonic schemas or tacit understandings of what to remember about the past and how to remember it. On the other hand, collective memory is external and material, encoded in mnemonic objects that include, but are not limited to, archives, memorials, museum exhibits, and history textbooks.13 A variety of commemorations, such as anniversary celebrations and memorial ceremonies, aim to align participants’ mnemonic schemas with mnemonic objects surrounding them in order to institutionalize a certain form of collective memory of their purportedly shared past.

In this process of constructing a collective autobiography, however, commemoration eliminates ambiguities from historical facts. As philosopher

Tzvetan Todorov observed, “While history makes the past more complicated, commemoration makes it simpler, since it seeks most often to supply us with heroes to worship or with enemies to detest.”14 Even though commemoration oversimplifies and even distorts, it is indispensable to social life because only through it can people appropriate something as vast and complex as history in order to articulate their collective identity. As a result, when different groups come into contact with each other, they are likely to notice disjunctions in how they commemorate the past. These disjunctive commemorations can then become sources of controversy and even conflict between the groups precisely because the foundations of their collective identities are at stake. In this sense, a history problem is not unique to East Asia but commonplace around the world.

But controversy and conflict over commemoration of the past become intractable when they intersect with nationalism, a political doctrine and cultural idiom that divides the world into discrete national communities.15 When people commemorate the past according to the logic of nationalism, they focus on their conationals, whether heroes or victims, without sufficient regard for foreign others. This exclusive focus on conationals manifests most clearly in nationalist commemoration of an armed conflict, which often elevates fallen soldiers to immortal heroes of the nation while disregarding what these soldiers might have done to foreign others—the moment when one’s own nation becomes sacred above all else, as pol itical scientist Benedict Anderson pointed out.16 Moreover, nationalism excludes foreign others from commemoration in another sense: the principle of national sovereignty prohibits foreign others from participating in the process of shaping the content of commemoration. When a government plans a memorial ceremony for war dead at a national cemetery, for example, it typically does not allow foreign governments to influence the content of the ceremony. History education is another example wherein national sovereignty over commemoration continues to be asserted, authorizing only historians who are citizens of a given country to write “national history.” Indeed, nationalism was the most dominant logic of commemoration during the twentieth century—to the extent that Max Weber once defined the nation as a “community of memories”—and much of the historical and sociological research on collective memory assumed the nation as a unit of analysis.17

By doubly excluding foreign others from the content and process of commemoration, the nationalist logic prompts people to embrace a certain version of the past as a foundation of their national identity. Not surprisingly then, if nationalist commemorations confront one another, intense controversy can result. A collision of contradictory versions of the past, each predicated on the negation of the foreign other, is a recipe for escalating mutual distrust and denunciation. This is how a historical problem, which is rather commonplace in itself, becomes an intractable point of contention in intergroup relations. Put another way, East Asia’s history problem is not primarily about scholarly, historiographical disagreement among historians in Japan, South Korea, and China over the evidential validity of historical materials and the plausibility of historical interpretations; rather, it is about emotionally charged disagreement between the governments and citizens in the three countries over how to construct autobiographical narratives as foundations of their national identities.

This fundamentally relational nature of a history problem calls into question the orthodox explanation of East Asia’s history problem, popular outside Japan as well as among left-leaning Japanese. This orthodox explanation attributes the history problem squarely to Japan—the seeming inability of its government and citizens to acknowledge their country’s past wrongdoings—by showing how the Japanese government was dominated by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during much of the postwar period.18 As the result of this nationalist domination, the orthodox explanation goes, the Japanese government not only refused to commemorate foreign victims but also justified the war as a heroic act of self-defense against Western imperial powers. While I agree that the orthodox explanation has much merit, I also argue that it fails to fully explain the dynamic and trajectory of East Asia’s history problem. For example, when Japan normalized its relations with South Korea and China in 1965 and 1972, respectively, government leaders on both sides in each instance decided to prioritize pol itical and economic interests over issues of apology and compensation. Similarly, a downward spiral of mutually reinforcing criticisms between Japan and its two neighbors intensified the history problem in the early 2000s.

Thus, I argue that the cause of the history probl em cannot be attributed to Japan alone and that it needs to be carefully examined in terms of Japan’s interactions with South Korea and China, as pol itical scientists Thomas Berger, Yinan He, and Jennifer Lind have each demonstrated in recent work.19 To understand the evolution of the history problem, then, it is crucial to trace how nationalist commemorations in Japan as well as in South

Korea and China have interacted with one another to produce mutual antipathy rather than affinity.

 
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