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From Historians’ Debate to Cosmopolitan Commemoration

In theory, historians have the potential to influence the dynamic and trajectory of East Asia’s history problem for two reasons. One is their unique status in the field of the history problem. Even though historians can engage in advocacy activities and act like any other political actors in the field, they mostly act as “disinterested others” who provide historical materials for other political actors to articulate their commemorative positions. Another reason is the demographic shift in the region. Since those who were born after the Asia-Pacific War are now the majority in Japan, South Korea, and China, their commemorations cannot but draw on evidence and interpretations put forward by historians. At this historical juncture, an increasing number of historians engage in joint research and education projects, forming a transnational epistemic community as an infrastructure of cosmopolitanism: they incorporate foreign perspectives into historical narratives and focus on transnational interaction as a unit of analysis. This growing historians’ debate at the transnational level presents the potential to problema- tize nationalist commemorations in Japan, South Korea, and China and move other political actors in the field toward more cosmopolitan positions.

In practice, however, the cosmopolitan potential of the historians’ debate is constrained in various ways. First of all, no institutionalized channels exist for joint projects by historians to effectively influence official commemorations in Japan, South Korea, and China. Furthermore, the ability of historians to effectively influence the governments and citizens is undermined by two other factors. One is that scholarly output of historians is almost always mediated by mass media willing to sacrifice accuracy for sensationalism. Another is that the coexistence of historiography and commemoration as two overlapping and equally legitimate modes of narrating the past grants historians only weak authority over non-historians. Especially in East Asia’s history problem, which is concerned with extremely complex and emotionally charged historical events, historians themselves are embroiled in controversies over evidence and interpretations, and their historiographies can be easily brushed aside by nationalist commemorations. The potential for historians as rooted cosmopolitans is further curtailed by the disconnect between their debate and history education, engineered by national governments eager to deploy history lessons as moral education for their citizens.

Thus, the cosmopolitan potential of the historians’ debate to help citizens critically reflect on their nationalist commemorations has not been fully realized in East Asia. As a result, Japan, South Korea, and China remain trapped in the history problem. George Santayana’s aphorism, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again,” is justly famous, but remembering the Asia-Pacific War according to the logic of nationalism will likely contribute to repeating a similar tragedy in the future. To ensure that citizens in the three countries will not “live through it again,” is there any way to effectively deploy historians’ critical reflections to shift commemorative positions of relevant political actors in a more cosmopolitan direction? The next chapter examines this question.

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