Japan prods history’s unhealed wounds

By Jong Kun Choi Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-2 21:18:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Last year ended with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which again threw a wrench in Northeast Asia's reconciliation efforts and set Seoul and Beijing to a tortuous test of patience for the years to come. Northeast Asia, a region of economic and social interconnectedness with unprecedented vitality, should not be seeing its regional stability suffer from the lingering conflicts of historical memory.

Seoul and Beijing have always wished for a Japan that resembles Germany always conscious of its past historical wrongful behaviors. But with Abe's outing to Yasukuni Shrine, a site widely seen as honoring perpetrators of war crimes before and during WWII, the wish remains wishful thinking.

We have begun 2014 with gloomy prospects for regional stability. The relationship between Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo may again have to undergo a descending spiral of diplomatic standoffs thanks to Abe's shrine trip.

How we remember shapes who we are. History provides the raw materials from which political mechanisms can be created by leaders for dividing or uniting states for political purposes. Therefore, how the state goes about representing and interpreting history may be a political as well as psychological decision by state elites. Japan's historical representations influence how the Koreas and China perceive Japan.

Abe may really believe that Seoul and Beijing are misperceiving his genuinely peaceful motivations. However, pre-existing emotions derived from a painful history affects the reactions of victims and their descendents, especially when the past memory is not properly healed and is still intentionally distorted by the descendants of the perpetrators.

The former dominator should have careful responsibility and respect for the states it subjugated. This is how Germany has earned its responsibility and respect in Europe, a region that has progressed beyond the politics of memory.

In this vein, Koreans do not fear Japan's cutting edged military power per se. What makes us wary of Japan is how Japan remembers a past that for us was protracted pain and agony. Thus, if Japan seems to be nostalgic for and glorifying its imperial past, it will make Koreans both in the South and North steer away from Tokyo. And this is not good for Japan's national interests.

Japan's proactive peace doctrine, its contribution to peacekeeping missions under the UN banner and its continuous donation to the official development assistance will be perceived as hypocritical if it does not face its past history of cruel domination responsibly.

Moreover, its vociferous promotion of universal democratic values and international norm in international politics will face serious validity tests if it denies virtually all of its wartime atrocities. The mutual respect and cooperation that Japan always talks about will become nothing but utterly meaningless gibberish. 

Japan needs not be isolated by its historic neighboring states over the historical issues. The problem of the past cannot be resolved through a colorful vision of an uncertain future that promises co-prosperity and peaceful coexistence. The politics of history must be put to rest only through a resolution of the past courageous determination by the former dominator. Japan is the only one with the key to this lingering problem.

For the Koreas and China, while trying to overcome the pains of the history uncured by the dominator, we need again exercise the wisdom of patience and mature prudence for the sake of Asia's stability and progress.

We cannot afford to lose the region's unprecedented social and economic vitality over Abe's outing to the Yasukuni Shrine. For Asia's regional peace, we need a mature, considerate and respectable Japan that confronts the past head-on.

The author is associate professor of the Department of Political Science & International Studies, Yonsei University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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