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The Central Barrier for Reconciliation in the East Asia

Apr 16 , 2015
  • Zheng Wang

    Director of Center for Peace and Conflict Studies

The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War II. 70 years is not a short period of time, and today’s world is significantly different in almost all aspects compared with the time that has past since the end of the war. However, after 70 years the ghost of conflict still haunts international relationships in East Asia. Historic problems are the central issues in the international relations of East Asia. In fact, the three major countries in East Asia have not realized even a low level of reconciliations since 1945. The historic issues are still the major barriers for the normal relationship between Japan and China, and Japan and Korea. The divergent understandings of the past conflict have deeply affected the national identity formation and nation building for these countries. Historic consciousness, particularly regarding the sense of humiliation relating to the war experience, has been the crux of the nationalism experienced by these nations in East Asia. These historic issues have also been frequently utilized in these states by politicians and elite members of society as tools for political mobilization, and various other purposes.

A core issues in all the historic problems in East Asia revolves around Japan’s attitude, reflection, and understanding regarding its own actions during WWII. Over the past 70 years, many Japanese political leaders have expressed their regrets about Japan’s behavior during war, and even apologized to Japan’s neighbors, and admitted to its invasion and violence in the region. However, for both the Chinese and Koreans, they still have not considered Japan’s apology to be sincere. Many of their people still feel anger about the perceived lack of Japanese indignity and sorrow when it comes to the past. During the seven decades, quite frequently the Japanese remarks and behaviors have fueled strong protests in China and South Korea. The lack of a sincere Japanese apology is the central barrier for real normalization and reconciliation. This is also the main reason why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s forthcoming speech in August for the 70th anniversary has been drawing a lot of attention from the international community, especially Japan’s neighbors China and Korea. People are attentively watching what Abe will say, especially to see if there will be any backtracking of Japanese government position on the past conflict.

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. In the time since the war, the relationships between Japan and China, Korea, and Taiwan have experienced ups and downs, and realized a high level of economic cooperation and frequent exchange between peoples. To some extent they have already realized normalization. Over a brief period of time the China-Japan bilateral relationship even experienced very significant and positive exchanges and positive interactions. For example, in the 1980s the China–Japan relationship was very close and very friendly, and was even being referred to as a “honeymoon” between the two countries. But unfortunately in recent years the historic issues have resurfaced to the point of playing an even more negative role compared to any time in the past. In 2012, Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands generated massive protests and a strong tide of nationalism in China. What was left of the bilateral relationship was at the brink of collapse, and there was a big concern about an accidental armed conflict breaking out over the territory disputes.

Since 1945 Japanese society has experienced a major transformation and has become a peace loving country. Japan’s realized 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 therefor very often take an indifferent attitude towards other country’s historic 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 historic perceptions and understanding is different than interest based conflict. Since the end of the war, countries in East Asia have not found an effective way to bring light over the historic shadows and fix their relationships. Some of the methods frequently used for international peacemaking, such as negotiation and mediation, have proven ineffective in addressing and fixing history and understanding based conflict. Very often people overlook the importance the role of history education and social narrative play in international relations. In the past whenever there was a crisis or tension between these countries, historic 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 and solve their problems. The huge common interests between the countries usually played a role in managing the conflict with out further escalation. But they have never really made efforts to address the sources of the conflict. To this extent, Prime Minister Abe’s speech in August could have very significant consequences, both positively and negatively, but Abe’s speech is mainly symbolic. 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.

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