The use and abuse of history

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The use and abuse of history

Nothing on the Asian political landscape has been as puzzling and disheartening to American observers of the region as the rapid deterioration in Japan-Korea relations. As recently as 2011, polls conducted in the two countries suggested that large majorities - over 60 percent of respondents - had generally favorable views of the other country. By 2014, these numbers had fallen to 32 percent in Japan and only 15 percent in Korea.

Virtually all accounts highlight history issues as the central culprit in this downward spiral: visits to Yasakuni shrine; textbooks; the comfort woman issue. Even Dokdo - indisputably Korean - could be seen as an example of historical denial.

The way that history operates on international relations is not straightforward, involving complex psychological factors that are harder to reconcile than traditional strategic and economic interests. Are Japanese apologies sincere? Will Koreans forever hold a grudge against Japanese for atrocities committed over 70 years ago?

The U.S. had high hopes that the comfort woman agreement of December would restart a process of reconciliation that has sputtered along for decades. Prime Minister Abe not only reiterated past statements - many quite eloquent - but apologized as the Prime Minister of Japan and agreed to direct payments into a South Korea fund.

Yet the text also highlighted the central issue for Japan: that at least as a political matter between the two countries, the issue would be laid to rest. In 1998, Kim Dae-jung took the courageous move of offering just such a resolution in his summit with Prime Minister Obuchi. His own administration nonetheless had to confront a resurgence of the textbook issue. Almost 20 years on - and with the ink on the comfort women agreement barely dry - the issues refuse to die.

The heart of the problem lies in the simultaneous importance of remembering, transcending and perhaps even bracketing the past: not forgetting, but not drowning in it either. For both Koreans and Japanese, a first step is to acknowledge the irreparability of the harm done. No agreement - and certainly no cash compensation - will undo the destruction that Japanese aggression caused the U.S., Asia and Japan itself. Acknowledging irreparability puts the magnitude and gravity of these historical events in appropriate perspective.

But the idea of irreparability also demands reflection on the fundamental limits of what any agreement or apologies can ultimately accomplish.

For Koreans, the challenge is one of empathy. Japanese history was derailed by a militarist authoritarianism that had Japanese as well as foreign victims. Japanese have the right to reflect on this past and commemorate their own losses. Doing so does not make the country militarist or even nationalist; indeed, polls repeatedly reveal that the Japanese public has a weaker sense of nationalism than Koreans.

To tar a generation now twice removed from the war years with the sins of the past serves no useful purpose. Does anyone really believe that the Japanese public condones war crimes? Portraying the country in this way leads Japanese to doubt Korea’s understanding not of the past but of the present; of the fundamental transformation of Japan into a peaceful democratic state.

It is even tougher for Koreans to acknowledge the sad truth of this political transformation. The very fact that Japan is a democracy permits fringe - but vocal - minorities to deny the past. The United States faces quite similar challenges with respect to slavery and the Civil War, our treatment of indigenous Americans and even the Holocaust.

Dealing with deniers is where both Japanese public officials and the public have their particular responsibility with respect to the past. Japan cannot silence deniers. But elites - including political elites - need not only to firmly disassociate themselves from these minority views, but to shame them.

Japanese governments have repeatedly shown a lack of discipline in this regard, treating history not as something requiring serious reflection but endless negotiation. Only recently, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Ishida undid some of what the comfort woman agreement had accomplished by denying that the women in question were effectively sex slaves. But the sex slave characterization strikes outsiders to the controversy as a simple statement of fact.

Empathy and discipline may seem like small virtues, but they require a larger leap: a recognition that turning over the past in the political arena may yield few gains. Historians in both Japan and Korea need to stand up for the common truth that the overwhelming majority of them actually share. But politicians in both Korea and Japan need to repeatedly pose a simple question. Does the mobilization of history serve a practical purpose of bringing the people of Japan and Korea together? Or is history being abused for purposes that ultimately sew only bitterness, a bitterness that politics itself is highly unlikely to resolve?

*The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.

by Stephan Haggard

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