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Toward a Critical Reassessment of the Tokyo Trial

Simply put, East Asia’s history problem developed because the Tokyo Trial, a common reference point for relevant political actors in the field, was deeply problematic. As historian Alexis Dudden observed, the fundamental problem with any military tribunal is that “a legal order for a ‘correct’ history must silence other histories in order to declare the necessary guilt.”102 While the trial certainly played a crucial role in exposing Japan’s war crimes across the Asia-Pacific, the Tokyo Judgment was essentially a nationalist commemoration on the part of the Allied powers. Its problematic nature gave the Japanese government and citizens an excuse to discount their past wrongdoings and evade their war responsibility, while providing South Korea and China with a justification to blame Japan entirely for the history problem.

Thus, a critical reassessment of the Tokyo Trial is the key to challenging nationalist commemorations and resolving the history problem. First, elements of victor’s justice in the trial need to be critiqued in such a way that the responsibility for the Asia-Pacific War will be collectively and fairly distributed between Japan and the Allied powers in light of the world- historical context of imperialism and colonialism in the first half of the twentieth century. This critique will decrease the ambivalence that many Japanese citizens feel toward Japan’s war crimes and help them commemorate Japan’s past wrongdoings more decisively. Second, war crimes of the Allied powers vis-a-vis Japan’s victimhood need to be recognized. Such recognition will not only alleviate the sense of injustice among Japanese citizens but also allow them to draw on their own victimhood to empathize with South Korean and Chinese victims in a universalistic manner. In turn, recognition of Japan’s victimhood will help South Korean and Chinese citizens better understand Japanese commemorations of the war. Third, the trial’s government-centered view of Japan’s past aggression needs to be challenged to clarify each Japanese citizen’s share of war responsibility. This has the potential to make cosmopolitan contrition truly nationwide. Finally, a critical reassessment of the Tokyo Judgment along these lines can be facilitated by the greater involvement of the United States as a relevant political actor in the field of the history problem.

This critical reassessment is impossible without historians capable of challenging nationalist commemorations, including the Tokyo Judgment itself. As historian Sven Saaler pointed out, “The writing of history is revision, since historians continually re-evaluate sources in order to revise existing theories or present new information or perspectives.”103 In this regard, historians in Japan, South Korea, and China have a crucial role to play in the history probl em because they can generate an East Asian version of the “historians’ debate” (Historikerstreit). As critical theorist Jurgen Habermas argued, such a controversy among historians “only reflects the structure of open societies. It provides an opportunity to clarify one’s own identityforming traditions in their ambivalences. This is precisely what is needed . . . for the development of a historical consciousness that is equally incompatible with closed images of history that have a secondary quasi-natural character and with all forms of conventional, that is, uniformly and pre-reflexively shared identity.”104 While Habermas made these observations on the historians’ debate that took place in West Germany in the 1980s, his observations captured the essence of historians’ debates anywhere. Indeed, a similar debate began in East Asia at the transnational level in the form of joint historical research and education projects. The emergence of these transnational projects created the possibility of problematizing nationalist biases in the “historical consciousness” of relevant political actors in the field. Chapter 6, then, turns to a critical examination of this possibility and explores how historians may be able to contribute to resolving the history problem.

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