His­tor­i­cal prob­lems cen­tral bar­ri­ers in East Asian ties

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY ZHENG WANG

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.

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