Saturday, November 1, 2014
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Ending East Asia’s History Wars

TOKYO – Georges Clemenceau, who, as France’s prime minister, led his country to victory in World War I, famously said that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” Japan is now discovering that history is too important to be left to newspaper editors.

In the 1990s, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun caused a firestorm at home and in South Korea by publishing a series of articles, based upon testimony by the former Japanese soldier Seiji Yoshida, on “comfort women” – Koreans forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Asahi has now admitted that the soldier’s confessions were unfounded, and has disavowed the core supporting evidence for the articles.

That retraction appears to be causing as much embarrassment – and diplomatic vitriol – in Japan and South Korea today as the original series did. But, at a time when both countries cannot afford to permit partisan or sloppy abuses of history to roil their bilateral relations, Asahi’s careless work has turned out to be more than abysmal journalism; it has introduced a dangerous element into regional diplomacy.

Some say that Japan and South Korea should follow the example set by France and Germany. Reconciling in the first two decades following the Nazi Occupation of France, these countries’ leaders understood that their security and economic ties were far too important to their citizens’ wellbeing to allow the old hatreds to fester. They knew that the unimaginable violence of WWII was a direct result of the antagonisms that had festered since the Napoleonic Wars and that were allowed to persist after 1918.

In Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, France and Germany had two of the twentieth century’s greatest statesmen, leaders who were able to discern the broad sweep of history through the fog of quotidian politics. Their loyalty was not only to the citizens who elected them, but also to the generations of the past that had endured the consequences of Franco-German enmity, and to generations yet to come, which would benefit from reconciliation.

Of course, given that Japan and Korea have not fought a series of wars against each other, their relationship is not the same as that between Germany and France. But it is clear that no one will benefit from a new round of heated historical debate. To avoid this, political leaders like de Gaulle and Adenauer are needed. Only when we can discuss the past without endangering the future will the countries of Northeast Asia be able to establish a truly durable structure of peace.

As Admiral Dennis C. Blair, a former commander of the US Pacific Fleet, stated at a recent conference, “The history of Asia from the 1930s to about 1955 or so was not pretty in any way….I don’t think any country can have a monopoly on righteousness, or on guilt and shame” for that time. Blair added that “the attempt to hold a ‘we were right’ and ‘you were wrong’ sweepstakes is not going to help our children and grandchildren understand what happened there.”

Japan and South Korea need to take responsibility for the future, not obsess about the past. A recent Japanese government white paper called South Korea the country “that shares the closest relationship with Japan historically and in areas such as economy and culture.” No doubt, many, if not most, South Korean foreign-policy experts and strategists share that sentiment. But it will take committed leadership to transcend the history wars and tap the full potential of Japanese-Korean cooperation, something that both countries’ key ally, the United States, strongly desires, as it seeks to draw China into a lasting and peaceful Asian order.

For too long, intemperate historical debates – often driven by biased newspaper accounts – have poisoned bilateral relations. Now, as another war of words heats up, Japanese and South Korean leaders need to step back, recognize where the real interests of their people lie, both today and in the future, and calmly begin to take the measures required to ensure durable reconciliation.

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  1. CommentedTaufiq Sunar

    It is easier for the Germans, since there is no Yasukuni there. Hitler killed himself, while Emperor Hirohito was allowed to rule after the war.

  2. CommentedMiwa Reiko

    Japan exercised stricter control over illegal KOREAN brokers. Korean know this facts. Becuase Korean news paper wrote these things. Korean shouldn't conceal this facts. IT'S NOT FAIR.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j83c1o4fqts&feature=share

      CommentedMiwa Reiko

      "They more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods."
      Korean government should teach the truth what government did for Korean people.

  3. CommentedGen Mycha

    I am curious how those people who say "Japan was the perpetrator and Korea was the victim" would criticise "The New Korea" written by Alleyne Ireland published in 1926.

  4. CommentedDavid Morgan

    Japan needs to make a clear statement accepting responsibility for its barbaric behaviour, in WW2 which includes the Nanking massacre and the issue of comfort women and the treatment of captured allied troops. Then give a full and unconditional apology to all involved and pay compensation the the countries it raped murdered and pillaged. Until then Japan will remain a pariah.

  5. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ms Yuriko Koike is urging an end to "East Asia's history wars". Quoting Georges Clemenceau's words: “war is too important to be left to the generals,” she says "Japan is now discovering that history is too important to be left to newspaper editors". She refers to an article in the 1990s published by one of Japan's major newspapters Asahi Shimbun, which featured the "testimony" of a Japanese soldier on Korean "comfort women" during World War II. The paper later "admitted that the soldier’s confessions were unfounded, and has disavowed the core supporting evidence for the articles".
    Ms Koike is trying to say that there were no such "comfort women" in Japanese garrisons and that media - especially foreign media - have been writing lies about Japan and the crimes committed by its military abroad? She even accuses Asahi Shimbun of "abysmal journalism" marked by "careless work" and "sloppy abuses of history".
    She doesn't seem to be sincere in her efforts to reconcile with South Korea , when she writes: "Some say that Japan and South Korea should follow the example set by France and Germany". The two European countries had been able to forge a friendly relationship, that lasts to date, thanks to the principle of reciprocity. It was not just that Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer who "understood that their security and economic ties were far too important to their citizens’ wellbeing to allow the old hatreds to fester". Germany was genuinely repentant. France was generous and ready to forgive.
    Ms Koike wishes to see "Japan and South Korea take responsibility for the future, not obsess about the past". Japan was the perpetrator and South Korea was the victim. Given the current government's nationalist policies, it is not willing to come to terms with its troubled past, let alone to be apologetic. How can Japan expect South Korea to take the first step.
    China's president Xi Jinping visited South Korea last July. It upset Tokyo to see deepening ties between the two countries. Now Shinzo Abe's government claims that Seoul “ shares the closest relationship with Japan historically and in areas such as economy and culture.”
    It's true what Dennis Blair, former commander of the US Pacific Fleet said that holding "a ‘we were right’ and ‘you were wrong’ sweepstakes is not going to help our children and grandchildren understand what happened there". Indeed, Japan has to admit its mistakes in history, just like Asahi Shimbun.
    "Japanese and South Korean leaders" could "step back" and "recognize where the real interests of their people lie, both today and in the future". Realpolitik is one thing, dignity is another. The only guarantee to "ensure durable reconciliation" is sincerity. It is actions that count, not words.

  6. CommentedRichard Boltuck

    "Of course, given that Japan and Korea have not fought a series of wars against each other, their relationship is not the same as that between Germany and France."

    No two countries have exactly the same relationship as any other two countries. But Korea and Japan have a bitter history preceding WWII, including the 1910-45 forced annexation (during which Korean resistance fighters battled Japan), and of course the historical wars, such as the Hideoyoshi invasions of Korea in the 1590s (now the subject of a major motion picture). Memories are long.

    I agree with the earlier comments that place responsibility for warming relations -- which is extremely important -- squarely on Japan. After WWII, Germany underwent de-nazification. Japan, however, maintained critical continuity of governing culture in many respects. Even today, we see that misrepresentations of the history of WWII within Japan by mainstream politicians, in textbooks, and in the narrative expounded at the Yasukuni Shrine's museum that repackages the war regime's propaganda.
    To some extent, Japanese recalcitrance is fueled by an understandable sense that Japan itself was, in the end, a victim of the atomic bombings -- but as the saying goes, even if one regards America's use of atomic weapons to have been wrong, two wrongs don't make a right.

    No wonder so many Koreans insist on sincerity within Japan in recognizing the wrongs done to their country. Sadly, I suspect many Japanese themselves are sympathetic to the need to regard history accurately and to acknowledge historical national responsibility; but unfortunately, these citizens of goodwill cannot prevent others with megaphones from continuing to reinfect the east Asian wounds.

      CommentedDavid Morgan

      My disgust of what I have seen in China and my research of Japanese atrocities have clouded my judgment. I am in full agreement with your article.your

  7. CommentedKeon Yeong Kim

    Starting with the withdrawal of the newspaper Asahi Shinmun's past arguments, the author implies South Korea's resentment over Japan's brazen denials of wartime atrocities are baseless.

    The subtle rhetoric crafted by the writer will only serve to aggravate the divide of historical perceptions between Japan and other countries.

    The United States presently expressed exasperation with a protracted diplomatic standoff over historical matters between its crucial two allies.

    But given the United States has pressured Japan to mend fending with South Korea, it is well aware that the Seoul-Tokyo strained ties are primarily blamed on Japan's distorted historical conception, though Washington is extremely reluctant to make its stance public for fear of a possible loss of the vital ally in defense of its continued hegemony in Northeast Asia.

  8. Commentedhari naidu

    Obfuscation of Japanese *comfort women* firestorm in S Korea cannot be overcome by such nonsensical thinking about Japanese leadership under Abe. Mainland China and S Korea are more or less coming ever closer on condemning Abe for refusing to admit the horrors of its military and other atrocities in both countries under occupation.

    Chinese press is even more vocal and demanding on Abe to stop paying (regular) respect to the *shrine of warriors* who died in recent wars, etc.

  9. CommentedEason Chan

    The arrogance and denials exhibited by the writer summed up why Asian countries are still holding vengeance against Japan over the war crimes. While the writer refer to Franco-German relationship after WWII, what she (and somewhat extended to Japan Gov't) missing is that Germany acknowledged all the war crimes committed under Nazi and was willing to take responsibilities.

    Not only Japan was spared from WWII reparation because of the communist threats, Japan has denied all the terrible crimes against the rest of East Asia, such as Rape of Nanjing, comfort women, biological/chemical weapon testing, military yen/invasion money, despite undeniable evidences.

    I agree with the writer that Japan and Korea should leave history behind, especially to counter the rise of China (disclaimer: I am ethic Chinese), but this is not helping when your government acts like a kid that denying wrongdoings.

    As of today, no Japanese emperors came out to apologize, and the rest of East Asia are smiling on wondering why a male heir is so hard to come by in the royal family.

  10. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Madame Koike is right in asserting that South Korea and Japan should not 'obsess' of their bitterly unhappy and violent shared history in shaping the future. However, three points are ignored in this commentary. Since Imperial Japan was meting out extraordinarily harsh treatment to Koreans (and Chinese, and later, other colonised Asian societies), it is relatively easy for Japanese politicians to ask the descendants of their victims to forgive and forget; it is less easy for the latter to do so. This is a major asymmetry that, however, irrational or extra-rational, plays a role in designing the contours of East Asia's historiographical landscape. Until this asymmetry is acknowledged and addressed, Japan's critics on continental Asia will exploit this blindspot in Japanese collective amnesia.

    Secondly, while Japan and Korea did not engage in a series of wars in the Franco-German tradition, Japan did invade, occupy, colonise and brutalise Korea (and large swathes of China and, later, south-east Asia). Koreans have no memory of treating Japan similarly. My own contacts with thoughtful and articulate South Koreans suggest subliminal outrage persists in many minds, anger that cannot be wished away with emollient appeals to a collaborative future.

    Thirdly, Madame Koike demolishes a key plank of the plank of those campaigning in behalf of the former band of 'comfort women' press-ganged into Japanese military servitude of a most inhuman kind by negating the credibility of a newspaper report several decades old. However, this attempt at airbrushing away the suffering and victimhood of the oppressed cannot necessarily win South Koreans over and wean them away from their uneasiness vis-a-vis Japan. Madame Koike is right in stressing the urgency of forward-looking leadership across Asia, but such leadership is not evidenced in efforts to marginalise a continental-size history of collective torment. Only by accepting and acknowledging the past can Asia, and that surely includes Japan, escape it.

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