For China, South Korea and Japan, the second world war has different starting points, meaning and impact on each country’s respective identities. The inability of each nation to accept and relate to that self-understanding plays a crucial role in the lack of reconciliation up to present and, I would argue, into the future.
For most Japanese, the war began with the Mukden/Manchurian Incident in 1931 and ended with the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. A victim mentality persists, with Japanese seeing themselves as casualties of the atomic bomb and a military government that brought death and hardship. Japan’s defeat is a reminder of its militarist past, for which many Japanese feel a sense of guilt and remorse. These experiences and the postwar pacifist constitution have deeply inculcated anti-militaristic norms in the Japanese identity.
Nonetheless, this process of self-understanding has been highly selective. The conflicts in China and the annexation of the Korean peninsula have not played a central role in Japan’s modern identity. Instead, events such as the Meiji Restoration, postwar rebuilding and the economic miracle are the key experiences on which modern Japanese identity is rooted.
For Koreans, their national identity has been forged by their experience with Japanese colonialism, the Korean war and national division. The colonial experience marked the Japanese onslaught on the territory, culture, language and traditions of Korea. Being forced to adopt Japanese traditions, Koreans hold a sense of cultural violation. Deepening this sense of violation is the issue of “comfort women”.
The Korean war further left the peninsula divided, with two sides competing to be the legitimate representative of Korea and defender against any future aggressor. This role strongly orients their self-understanding towards one that demands the recognition of past wrongdoings.
For China, the opium wars and the first Sino-Japanese war, which began in 1894, marked the beginning of a sense of violation, division and bullying by other countries, notably Japan, whose invasion caused the death of tens of millions of Chinese. China’s self-understanding, which includes a profound sense of historical humiliation and victimhood, makes it feel it is on a moral high ground that justifies criticism of Japan and that it is now its turn to dictate the terms of international relations.
Each country feels the other is denying the fundamental parts of their modern identities. The Japanese people see their postwar history and commitment to peace as part of their modern identity. So when China and South Korea accuse Japan of being militaristic, nationalistic and unrepentant for its wartime past, many Japanese feel the core elements of their modern identity are not being recognised. Simply, Japan’s imperial past represents a period of history that is alien to most and not representative of Japan today.
Koreans view Japan’s self-understanding as problematic as it doesn’t include recognition of the violations against the Korean people during the colonial period. Japan’s complacency in this history means the core elements of modern Korean identity are not being recognised. These feelings are reinforced by the presence of the US military in the region, as it is a source of their sense of humiliation and vulnerability based on their peninsula’s history of foreign interference.
China, too, understands its modern identity as being a victim of Japanese imperialism. Thus, the internment of class-A war criminals into Yasukuni Shrine, visits by political leaders to the shrine, textbooks that downplay Japan’s imperial past and open discussion refuting Japan’s role as an aggressor strike at the very core of Chinese modern identity. It leads them to the conclusion that the Japanese do not acknowledge their past or recognise the core experiences that make Chinese who they are.
This lack of recognition on all sides makes reconciliation problematic. Complicating matters is how history has been instrumentalised in each state. Historical amnesia by some politicians and parties allowed Japan to rebuild quickly after the second world war and avoid responsibility for its wartime past. In South Korea, the comfort women issue has been unfortunately used to consolidate domestic support for politicians and avoid inconvenient truths about Korea’s colonial experience.
In China, the government has effectively used history to legitimise its rule, having been the liberators from Japanese imperialism. Inconvenient truths, such as the nationalists’ role in fighting the Japanese, are avoided. What’s more, Japan’s postwar history is neatly ignored to ensure the victim narrative remains dominant.
In the face of such challenges, reconciliation will continue at a glacial pace.
Politicians need to be aware that instrumentalisation of history can result in an escalation of mutual distrust in the region and heighten the chance for conflict. It is in the interest of all three countries to begin the process of reconciliation through recognition of each other’s modern identities and self-understandings. Implicit in this process is to engage in an exchange of self-understanding at the grass-roots level to allow people, not governments, to discover and recognise their own shared histories.
While everyday Chinese and Korean people may be portrayed as anti-Japanese in the popular media, the reality is far more complex. Student exchanges, media consumption and tourist numbers suggest that, on the ground, China and Korea are increasingly fascinated with their neighbour. At the same time, the acts of a politically prevalent few in Japan mask the pacifist attitudes many Japanese hold dear, making Japan appear far more militaristic than it is. Grass-roots exchanges allow us to avoid the instrumentalisation of history by governments and empower citizens to not only learn a shared past but to create a shared future based on mutual respect and recognition of the past and present.