Toward peace, prosperity in Asia
The 1868 Meiji Restoration was the only example of the successful westernization and modernization of an Asian country. Based on this success, Japan won consecutive victories against China and Russia in two major wars and grew into an imperialist superpower. Starting with the 1910 annexation of Korea, it launched an invasion on China. It was an unstoppable step for Japan, which succeeded in building a militarist country based on the emperor system.
“The question remains whether Japan will be a watchdog for the Western way of might or a defender of the Eastern way of right,” said Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary who founded the Republic of China, before his death in 1924. Sun’s remarks are in line with Korea’s independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun, before his execution in 1909, and the Korean Declaration of Independence of March 1, 1919.
The totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century share one common aspect: the entire country, including the leader, becomes the captive of the system. Captivated by the excitement of militarism and dynamics of nationalism, Japan ended up launching the attack on Pearl Harbor and entered into World War II. Its crushing defeat ended the era of imperialism and gave a second chance to Japan, forcing it to restructure for the second time.
Joining Germany in democratizing in 1945, Japan managed to successfully reform and develop. Its enormous economic growth was even featured on a Time magazine cover story in the 1980s. A pacifist Constitution, democratic politics and high-speed growth were the three pillars that supported Japan, and it deserved the praise it got for successfully transforming for a second time.
Japan, however, is aggressively trying to create a new national system again since Abe took office, and the results are shaking home and abroad. The international community, particularly around Asia, is concerned about Japan’s return to militarized politics based on sentimental nostalgia for its imperialist era, a superpower based on the Meiji Restoration.
Abe’s worrisome shift is a natural response to changing situations. Japan’s economy has experienced nearly 20 years of stagnation and the country faced deadly natural disasters like the Fukushima earthquake, while political instability has led to frequent changes in political leadership. Insecurity has became a part of everyday life, and the energy and confidence of the Japanese has plummeted.
Most of all, as the era of the United States being the world’s overwhelming superpower has ended, China has risen to become the second-largest economic power. It is still growing and will become a competitor with the United States in terms of security. This uneasiness and psychological withering has forced Abe to take a set of emergency measures. The international community’s efforts to adapt to a multipolar world, politically and economically - particularly the attempts by Japan, China and Korea - has created the worrisome puzzle of our time.
Since the March 1 Independence Movement, Korea has consistently promoted a path based on benevolence and humanitarianism in the region and the world, calling for the peaceful coexistence and mutual prosperity of Korea, China and Japan. Korea strongly disapproves of the militarist politics aimed at pursuing national interest by disregarding humanism and justice and by using force. Korea wants to lead efforts to restrain hegemony in the international community.
We believe the United States is not a typical hegemonic country, like those we saw during the imperialist era. That is why Korea, Japan and China now face the challenge of trying to find how best to have a relationship with America while creating productive trilateral ties in Northeast Asia.
When Japan manages to reject nostalgia for the glory of its imperialist period and find the moral high ground of the international community - and when China manages to refine its national goals to realize the lesson emphasized by Sun - Korea, China and Japan, along with the United States, will be able to lay the foundation to make the 21st century of the Asia-Pacific era. At the same time, they can escape from the chains of conventional nationalism and start an experiment with the creative multilateral alliance of international politics and seek peace and prosperity with the world. Wouldn’t that be the same dream that we cherished 95 years ago with the March 1 Independence Movement?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 3, Page 31
*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Hong-koo