Home History The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
Commemorative Responsibility for the Future: A Pragmatist Position and Its Policy Implications
I argue that younger generations of Japanese citizens, including myself, do have commemorative responsibility, to fully acknowledge Japan’s past wrongdoings and press our government to offer a satisfactory apology, even though we did not commit those acts. Here, I justify commemorative responsibility of younger generations based on pragmatist philosophy. As John Dewey stated, a pragmatist approach to the past means that “past events cannot be separated from the living present and retain meaning. The true starting point of history is always some present situation with its problems.”27 Ultimately, the past should not be commemorated for its own sake but for the sake of the future, immanent in present problem-situations confronting citizens. In short, younger generations of Japanese citizens do not have commemorative responsibility because they have inherited war guilt but because the “present situation”—the persistence of the history problem—demands commemoration of Japan’s past wrongdoings.
I therefore reject the essentialist position on commemorative responsibility advanced by Ienaga Saburo, who insisted that younger generations of Japanese citizens “automatically inherit responsibility for the war from their preceding generations by virtue of the Japanese nation’s continuity.”28 This essentialist position anchors commemorative responsibility in an extreme version of ethnic nationalism that presumes an almost metaphysical form of inborn national guilt. Ienaga’s argument for such a deeply ethnic- nationalist argument is ironic, given his own history of criticizing the Japanese nationalist commemoration of the Asia-Pacific War. But, at the same time, the essentialist position does have a valid point. Seo Gyeong Sik, a Korean resident in Japan and law professor at Tokyo University of Economics, justified ethnic inheritance of war responsibility as follows: “Some Japanese ask why they have to be blamed for crimes that their grandfathers committed, but it is the Japanese people themselves that defend the ethnic-nationalist logic to define the Japanese in terms of blood.”29 Seo thus pointed out a selfcontradiction among younger generations of Japanese citizens who refuse to inherit Japan’s war responsibility while uncritically accepting the jus sanguinis principle of Japanese citizenship that has marginalized Korean residents in Japan and repressed memories of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. Seo’s point is well taken, but he still accepted the idea of inborn national guilt a la Ienaga and reproduced the logic of Japanese nationalism from which Korean residents continue to suffer.
In this regard, the pragmatist position is similar to a civic-nationalist position articulated by political scientists Onuma Yasuaki, Kwak Jun-Hyeok, and Melissa Nobles. They argued that even though younger generations do not inherit guilt, they inherit commemorative responsibility as part of their civic duties as citizens of a country that committed wrongs.30 For Onuma, younger generations cannot but inherit both positive and negative legacies from their predecessors, so long as they are citizens of the country; that is, younger generations of Japanese citizens inherited Japan’s postwar economic prosperity as well as commemorative responsibility for its past wrongdoings. But the pragmatist position is much more future oriented than the civic- nationalist position because it conceives of commemorative responsibility among younger generations as driven by what kind of future relations they want to establish with their foreign neighbors as much as by what wrongs their predecessors committed in the past. To be sure, this future orientation may be misleading at first, as former diplomat Togo Kazuhiko warned: “When the perpetrator speaks of ‘future orientation (mirai shiko),’ the victim can hear it as ‘let’s forget the past.’ ”31 But the pragmatist position does not justify forgetting the past for the sake of the future but demands the exact opposite, to remember the past for resolving the present situation with the history problem and thereby striving for a different future.
The pragmatist position thus overlaps partially with an ethical position advocated by Takahashi Tetsuya, one of the best-known leftist intellectuals in Japan. Takahashi argued that younger generations of Japanese citizens have an ethical responsibility to respond to the call from the Asian other. Since the Japanese self is constituted in relation to the Asian other, “it is impossible to speak of ‘We the Japanese’ without facing the Asian victim.”32 Takahashi then elevated the Asian other’s demand on commemoration of Japan’s past wrongdoings to the level of the absolute and sacralized the other’s prerogative to offer forgiveness by drawing on Jacques Derrida’s argument: “One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself.”33 Here, Takahashi anchored commemorative responsibility among younger generations in the ethics of self-other relations, wherein the Japanese self must unconditionally respond to the Asian other’s call, and the other’s forgiveness constitutes the condition of both possibility and impossibility of reconciliation.
I am sympathetic to Takahashi’s ethical position, and I do agree with him that “the real key to disentangling the history problem is the question of how to meet the other, how to create the self-other relation.”34 But, at the same time, I think that his position is deeply problematic because it makes the other absolute and prioritizes the other over the self. Such ethical extremism risks providing complete moral immunity for the other even when he or she adopts the nationalist logic and refuses to reciprocate recognition of humanity to the self. The ethical position also ignores the fact that the relationship between the self and the other is fundamentally interactive and often mutually transformative, which renders the contents of commemoration, the terms of apology, and the conditions of reconciliation immanent within interactions among relevant actors.
The pragmatist position, by contrast, fully incorporates the interactive and immanent characteristics of self-other relations in concrete historical sit- uations.35 Put another way, the pragmatist position does not prescribe specific conditions of reconciliation a priori—these conditions should be left to relevant actors to work out through their mutually transformative interactions. Perhaps the only condition that the pragmatist position demands is that, as critical theorist Axel Honneth noted, these interactions should be grounded in the taking of the attitude of the other, that is, in the reciprocation of recognition of each other’s humanity.36 The pragmatist position therefore serves as a principled justification for mutual cosmopolitan commemoration as the key to resolving the history problem in East Asia.
But what concrete measures can be taken to facilitate mutual cosmopolitan commemoration among younger generations in Japan, South Korea, and China? So far, political scientists have made several policy recommendations. To name but a few: pol itical leaders in the three countries should refrain from opportunistically exploiting the history problem to mobilize public support for their regimes; the Japanese government should institutionalize contrition consistently across different domains, ranging from official rhetoric to education; the Japanese government’s greater contrition, when it is expressed in good faith, should be reciprocated by the South Korean and Chinese governments; and the three governments should continue to support joint historical research and education projects.37
While all of these recommendations are important, I would like to emphasize the last one because the historical judgment of the Tokyo Trial served as a focal point of the history problem during the entire postwar period. On the one hand, Japanese nationalists articulate their commemorative position—Japan fought a just war for self-defense and liberation of Asia—by rejecting the Tokyo Judgment as victor’s justice. On the other hand, South Korean and Chinese nationalists blame Japan entirely for the history probl em, consistent with the trial that judged Japan as solely and entirely guilty of the war. The majority of Japanese citizens, however, fall between the two extreme positions taken by nationalists in Japan as well as in South Korea and China. They rather believe that “reconciliation will not be achieved by the complete rejection of Japan’s past as an unmitigated disaster or by defending Japanese colonialism, aggressions, and the Pacific War as completely justifiable actions,” as Togo Kazuhiko and historian Hasegawa Tsuyoshi observed.38 Thus, many Japanese citizens, unlike Japanese nationalists, readily acknowledge Japan’s war crimes, but they are also troubled by the failure of the Tokyo Trial to prosecute war crimes committed against Japan, unlike South Korean and Chinese nationalists. Here, to reinforce cosmopolitan commemoration among the majority of Japanese citizens, historians in East Asia can, and should, continue their joint projects, to pool historical materials across national borders, reexamine the Tokyo Judgment, and problematize nationalist commemorations in light of newer and stronger evidence.
But simply carrying on with the existing joint projects will not help resolve the history problem, because historians’ debate is currently disconnected from governmental and public commemorations. To allow historians to effectively intervene in the history probl em, I recommend the following changes pertaining to historical research and history education in East Asia.
First, the governments of Japan, South Korea, and China should increase their support for joint historical research, for governmental support is crucial for these joint projects to have any meaningful impact on the history problem. For example, joint historical research and textbook projects contributed to Germany’s reconciliation with France and Poland because they had both pol itical and organizational support from the governments involved. Importantly, even though governmental support is essential, the governments do not always need to provide financial and human resources for joint historical research projects. A case in point is the Conference of Japanese and South Korean Historians. This conference was established in 2001 in response to the joint report by the Japanese and South Korean governments that had recommended the expansion of joint historical research. While the conference has been held annually since then, it has been organized by Japanese and South Korean historians independent of the governments.39 Thus, an expression of support by the governments could alone stimulate and legitimate joint historical research projects. Indirect governmental support of this sort could probably better facilitate cosmopolitanism among participants because the governments would not be able to constrain joint historical research projects by controlling the sel ection of participants and foregrounding the national frame of identification.40
But a crucial question is whether politicians in East Asia are ready to incorporate outcomes of joint research projects by historians—even ones that contradict their own commemorative positions—into official commemorations. At present, politicians are not ready, opting to ignore historians’ critical reflections. In fact, LDP politicians recently became more vocal in criticizing historians who studied Japan’s past wrongdoings, prompting a group of historians in the United States and Europe to issue a statement of solidarity to stop “government manipulation, censorship, and private intimidation” and call upon the Japanese and other governments to “defend the freedom of historical inquiry.”41 In this regard, it is useful to reflect on the remarks that Richard von Weizsacker made in summer 1995 when he toured in Japan. In one of his public lectures, Weizsacker asked his Japanese audience, “Does the task of interpreting the past belong to historians alone? Or are we, political and intellectual leaders of Germany and Japan, also responsible for taking part in the task? I’m convinced that we are.”42 Of course, politicians lack professional skills to interpret the past in lieu of historians, but they do have an essential part in the history problem because they have the power to institutionally support historians’ debate. This governmental support is especially pivotal in East Asia, where the governments have traditionally dominated the civil societies.43 A resolution of the history problem depends on courageous politicians who dare to subject the existing official commemorations to critical reflections offered by the transnational network of historians.
Second, I recommend that joint historical research projects be rethought in multilateral settings. Except for the History to Open the Future project and a few other projects, joint historical research in East Asia has been organized in terms of Japan-South Korea and Japan-China bilateral relations. As historian Yang Daqing argued, however, “Institutionally, participation in multilateral research or dialogue can be a valuable opportunity for socialization into international norms and practices on writing history. . . . The permanent solution to the history problem, if there is one, is the cultivation of a global citizenship. This requires an understanding of history based on humanist principles and values.”44 In this respect, multilateral collaboration is likely to be most effective if American historians are included, because the United States has a significant stake in international relations in the region.45 As Shin Gi-Wook pointed out, “The United States not only has a responsibility for helping resolve the disputes but also has a clear interest in ensuring that the peace and prosperity of a region so vital to its future is not undermined by controversies rooted in the past.”46 Since the United States is one of the relevant political actors in the history problem, historians’ debate in East Asia will benefit from participation by American historians who are willing to subject their country’s nationalist commemoration to critical reflections.
Third, I recommend that historians engage with the public more actively. Professional historians in Japan were overwhelmed by JSHTR members and other “populists,” not only because the boundaries between historiography and commemoration are ambiguous, but also because many professional historians in Japan and elsewhere tend to confine their work to scholarly communities. No matter how historical research on Japan’s past wrongdoings makes progress, it is unlikely to reshape public commemorations without more historians sharing their findings with citizens. In a way, professional historians have the civic duty to help concerned citizens understand historical events that shaped the world in which they live.
At the same time, it is important to note that historians cannot, and should not, dictate how the governments and citizens commemorate the Asia-Pacific War. To begin with, historians disagree with each other over the reliability of evidence and the validity of interpretations: this fundamentally provisional nature of “historical facts” vis-a-vis a lack of consensus disables historians from presenting the governments and citizens with “the correct way” of remembering the past. Perhaps more importantly, human beings cannot replace commemoration with historiography because the former is the only way to assign meaning to the past and appropriate it as the basis of collective identity. The best historians can do for the governments and citizens, therefore, is foreground the importance of careful examination of historical evidence and interpretations and thereby keep commemorations open to critical reflections and continuous revisions.47
In turn, as Paul Ricoeur emphasized, “In the final analysis, the conviction of the citizen alone justifies . . . the intellectual honesty of the historian in archives.”48 It is therefore crucial to increase “historical literacy” among citizens. Here, I suggest that this historical literacy should emphasize a set of competencies for taking a reflective stance on one’s own commemorative position by critically examining available evidence and interpretations a la an amateur historian. As Tessa Morris-Suzuki pointed out, the crucial question is, “How can one mount an effective critique of the Society for History Textbook Reform [JSHTR] without reverting to a simple positivism which seeks to replace the Society’s ‘incorrect’ narrative of the national past with an authoritative, but still dubious, ‘correct’ alternative?”49 Thus, I recommend that history education in Japan, South Korea, and China be reformed in such a way that younger generations can not only learn history according to the cosmopolitan logic, but also acquire cognitive skills to critically evaluate evidence and construct interpretations by working through disagreements.
Once the existing memorization-based approach to history is replaced with a more dialogic one, younger generations of the three countries will become more capable of taking critical distance from nationalist commemorations than previous generations. As Tsuchiya Takeshi, a professor of social studies at Aichi University of Education, suggested, these cognitive skills are needed more than ever in an increasingly global world, especially in the region of East Asia marred with a difficult transnational past: “In a transnational, multicultural society that transcends the framework of the nation-state, history education must evaluate the ability ‘to interpret history and propose a future by taking into consideration the foreign other’s perspective.’ . . . Thus, as history education becomes more and more transnational, it will become crucial not to demand one correct answer but to create evaluation criteria for the ability to consider multiple perspectives . . . and to revise and deepen one’s idea through dialogues with others.”50
This “dialogic historical literacy” may look unrealistic in East Asia, where the governments deploy education systems as vehicles of nationbuilding.51 Yet, ongoing education reforms in Japan, South Korea, and China are conducive to such historical literacy. In Japan, the government has begun to shift the curricular focus away from memorization to problem solving since the late 1990s by revising the Course of Study to increase the weight of problem-solving learning activities to prepare younger generations for a complex, constantly changing global world.52 Similar education reforms have been carried out in South Korea and China as well. As part of this ongoing education reform at the regional level, history education can be made more problem-solving oriented a la pragmatism, so as to help students develop the cognitive and communicative skills necessary for debating historical interpretations with foreigners in a constructive manner. Ultimately, an ideal education reform will abolish the textbook-i nspection process itself and fully expose students to multiple historical interpretations and conflicting evidence.
In addition to better historical literacy, younger generations of Japanese citizens need to acquire more knowledge of modern Japanese history, including Japan’s past wrongdoings. This is urgent because the current structure of Japanese history education, which downplays the modern period, has created a vacuum of historical knowledge in younger generations: JSHTR and other conservative NGOs exploited this vacuum to persuade young Japanese citizens to accept their nationalist commemoration as a correct version of history. To prevent the nationalist commemoration from further encroaching on the hearts and minds of young Japanese citizens, history education in Japan needs to expand the coverage of the modern period.
To this end, I recommend that younger generations of Japanese citizens learn about not only the comfort women, the Nanjing Massacre, and other well-known atrocities in East Asia’s history problem but also about lesser-known but no less important ones. Take, for example, Koreans who moved to Sakhalin during Japan’s colonial rule. After the Soviet Union occupied Sakhalin, they could not return to Korea because the agreement between the Japanese and Soviet governments allowed only Japanese citizens to leave Sakhalin.53 The tragedy of these Koreans who could not be reunited with their families after the war can remind Japanese citizens of the legacy of Japan’s imperialist past to the full extent. Another important tragedy is the Battle of Okinawa, which claimed more than ninety thousand civilian lives: Okinawa residents were treated as “second-class” Japanese and, during the battle, were killed not only by the Allied powers but also by Japanese troops.54 After the war ended, Okinawa continued to be occupied by the United States until May 1972, and today, the prefecture disproportionately shoulders the US military bases in Japan. Without reference to the modern history of Okinawa, it is impossible to understand the postwar trajectory of US-Japan alliance, including the recent reinterpretation of Article 9 of the constitution that expanded the scope of the SDF’s overseas deployment. Thus, looking at the war from the perspectives of marginalized groups can help younger generations comprehend the real extent of Japan’s past wrongdoings as well as the ramifications of the Asia-Pacific War on current international relations.
The key to fostering this kind of “cosmopolitan historical literacy” is the continuation and improvement of joint historical research and education projects: historians and history teachers should lead by example. To be sure, the existing projects, including the History to Open the Future project, have encountered many logistical and academic probtems, as noted by many Japanese participants in the symposium on European and East Asian joint history textbook projects held in Tokyo in 2007. However, German and French participants reminded them that the European projects made progress over time through many trials and errors.55 A case in point is the Joint German-Polish Textbook Commission, founded by the West German and Polish UNESCO Commissions in 1972. West German and Polish historians discussed various events and episodes in history of German-Polish relations, including Nazi occupation and Polish resistance movements, and issued recommendations for history and geography textbooks in 1976.56 Although these recommendations initially drew strong criticisms from West German nationalists, most of them were eventually incorporated into sections on Poland in West German textbooks.
Indeed, joint historical research and education projects are supported by the worldwide trend in education systems that legitimate cosmopolitan schemas, which take humanity, rather than nationality, as a primary frame of reference through human rights education and emphasis on world citizenship.57 Summarizing results of these recent comparative studies, sociologist John Meyer observed that more and more education systems define the person as someone who “should be able to function as a supra-national citi?zen, and reflect from a more universal point of view on local and national history. In other words, the individual student is to become a member of a newly-developing identity called ‘humanity.’ ”58 This institutional trend has forced the Japanese and other governments to reshape education systems as vehicles of “cosmopolitan nation-building.”59 This means that national history persists as a school subject, but it can be taught legitimately only if it is accompanied by cosmopolitan perspectives. As suggested by one of the participants in the Japan-South Korea joint history textbook symposium, “If teachers cannot avoid making lessons centered on the history of their own country, it is important for them to link their history to universality and cosmopolitanism, so that they can relativize and objectify their history to go beyond prejudices.”60
Realizing this kind of cosmopolitan education will take a lot of time and effort, but it will offer a most fundamental solution to the history probl em by prompting younger generations in Japan, South Korea, and China to remember the Asia-Pacific War newly and differently, according to the logic of cosmopolitanism. As the UNESCO Constitution states, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” 61 While this may sound too idealistic at first, mutual cosmopolitan commemoration has already emerged through the joint historical research and education projects. The question is whether the governments and citizens in the three countries are willing to further it.
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