History Issue: Beyond the “People’s Story”

Kiichi Fujiwara

Professor of International Politics at the University of Tokyo


The confrontation over historical controversies continues. Behind Korean President Park Geun-hye’s refusal to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is Korea’s strong resentment at the way the Japanese government handles the issue of their mistreated civilians, who were forced to serve as “comfort women” in wartime. China not only repeatedly criticized Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine late last year, but is also trying to foster Japan’s isolation in international community by using the “history card,” and arguing that it is Japan, and not China, that is causing instability of international relations, as evident from Abe’s visit to Yasukuni. More than half a century after the Sino-Japanese war and World War II, differences in interpretation of the past are still shaking our present-day international relations.

How can we overcome this situation? Some may say that is very easy and does not require much thought. Countries like China and South Korea insist on saying that Japan has the moral obligation to apologize and compensate their war victims, and argue that Japan is not trusted simply because it does not do so. While in Japan, some claim that the Japanese government has already apologized over and over again, and that they do not see what more Japan must do. There are then even those who take a more radical position, arguing that there is no need to apologize at all, and that the actions taken by Japan in WWII were perfectly justified.

Common to these arguments is the mindset according to which it is “they, and not us” that should change, and all we have to do is to retain a firm attitude. In other words, people with this mindset do not believe they are the ones who need to change, because they think it is the other party that is responsible for the problem. But yet, no parties dare to change their position, making it inevitable for the dispute to remain unsettled. Furthermore, unlike territorial conflicts, where realistic compromises are possible, such as by agreeing on shelving each other’s territorial claims for the time being or leaving them in the hands of later generations, the history issue is, in nature, difficult to solve through compromises or adjustments of interests among the parties involved. This is the very reason why historical issues tend to drag on and on.
Personally, I think Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine was an unwise choice.
Since Mr. Abe assumed the premiership a year earlier, his administration has tried to arouse concern not only in the United States, but also among ASEAN member states about China’s becoming increasingly assertive policies that are. Although this may work for the territorial issue Japan can expect these countries to cooperate on Japan’s position no allies would want to take sides with Japan over historical issues. From the start of the Abe administration, not just China and Korea, but the United States and European nations have become suspicious that Prime Minister Abe might be viewing the Japanese military’s actions in World War II as legitimate and justifiable. Mr. Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine has provided grounds for such suspicions. Even though he stresses that his shrine visit was to renew his pledge not to fight a war again, Mr. Abe’s no-more war pledge sounds hollow after his visit to a shrine where wartime leaders (convicted as war criminals) are enshrined, along with millions of war dead. By trying to justify the past, he risked the loss of Japan’s credibility in the world today.

There is one thing that is bothering me in particular. Whether it is in Japan, China or Korea, the debate over the history issue tends to focus on the victims of one’s own country, and limited attention is paid to those similarly victimized in other countries. In Korea, many talk about the sufferings of Korean comfort women only, but very little interest is shown to what the comfort women have gone through in other countries, mainly in the South Pacific, or even the hardships experienced by victims of World War II, which include Japanese civilians as well. Likewise in Japan, the sufferings of the last war, including the atomic bombings to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have been discussed mainly as experiences of Japanese people, and it cannot be denied that experiences of people other than the Japanese hardly received any domestic attention. While we talk about sufferings of our own people, we seldom talk about what people elsewhere have undergone.

To the citizens in each of the nations involved in war, wartime memories which disregard the sufferings of their own people are simply wrong. Just as memories of the last war ignoring the damage inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unacceptable to the Japanese, memories of the war that exclude the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre or the mistreatments endured by the “comfort women” are regarded as wrong, unacceptable memories by the Chinese or Koreans. Here we see a common pattern in China, Korea and Japan telling each other their own stories of the war, and blaming the others for ignoring their own experiences.

This is indeed a narrow-minded way of looking at things. It goes without saying that victims of the Sino-Japanese war and World War II are not limited to just Japanese. Knowing what kind of misery and agony the people in China and in the Korean Peninsula had to experience, and looking at different stories of the war from different perspectives, must come first, and before debating the necessity of apologizing. I do not think such attitude would pander to the positions claimed by the Chinese and Korean governments. That is because the choice is not about which position is right, but what is needed is fair eye to capture the war from a borderless viewpoint, beyond nationalistic frames of reference.

The prerequisite for pledging not to fight any war again is the ability to recognize what a war is. As long as we continue to look at the war only through our own experiences, such pledge would not touch the heart of the non-Japanese people. To break away from this deadlock over the history issue, it is essential for us all to know what the war meant to other nationals.

This column has been published in the Asahi Shimbun Newspaper dated January 22, 2014