Historical problems central barriers in East Asian ties
On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed “deep remorse” for Japan’s World War II aggression at the AsianAfrican Summit, but stopped short of apologies.
Historical problems are the central issues in the international relations of East Asia.
A core issue in all the historical problems in East Asia revolves around Japan’s attitude, reflection, and understanding regarding its own actions during World War II.
Over the past 70 years, many Japanese political leaders have expressed their regrets about Japan’s behavior during the war, and even apologized to Japan’s neighbors, and admitted to its invasion and violence in the region.
However, both Chinese and Koreans do not consider Japan’s apology to be sincere.
Many still feel anger about the perceived lack of Japanese indignity and sorrow when it comes to the past.
During the seven decades, the Japanese remarks and behaviors have frequently fuelled strong protests in China and South Korea.
The lack of a sincere Japanese apology is the central barrier for real normalization and reconciliation.
Compared with the reconciliation process in Europe after WWII, such as between Germany and France, and Germany and Poland, reconciliation in East Asia has been particularly challenging and difficult.
Since 1945 Japanese society has experienced a major transformation and has become a peace loving country.
Japan’s economic growth has made it possible for Tokyo to contribute greatly to international development, and Japan has made very positive contributions to international society, especially in the realm of economic development, including assistance with China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s.
However, though Japanese society has experienced a peaceful transformation, the understanding about history, especially about its role in the war 70 years ago, has not progressed and adapted along with the rest of its society.
Due to its history education, today’s young generations in Japan know very little about the war, and therefore very often take an indifferent attitude towards other country’s historical consciousness.
On the other hand, history education and social narratives in China have made the younger generations posses a very strong outlook about the war. This huge gap of perceptions, understanding, and emotion has become the root for the divergent understanding, remarks, and behavior.
There is a bad feedback-loop in East Asia wherein the lack of admission of past actions and lack of sincere apology from the Japanese side only acts to further frustrate the Chinese and Koreans.
This in turn only makes them angrier. This fervent emotion from their neighbors makes many Japanese even more reluctant to admit their wrongdoings.
Conflict rooted in historical perceptions and understanding is different from interest-based conflict.
In the past whenever there was a crisis or tension between these countries, historical issues would make them more sensitive and dangerous.
But people have never really made efforts to address the deep sources of the conflict. So whenever there was conflict and tension they just tried to make political and security arrangements to try to solve the problems.
If we want to make a major change in the relationship, the three countries must find a way to restart the unfinished reconciliation process. And the reconciliation process cannot be a top-down procedure, just organized by political leaders and societal elites; rather there must be a movement for building peace at the grassroots level. The author is the director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations of Seton Hall University in New Jersey.