Behind the East Asian ‘history wars’

October 11, 2020

Protests in China, demonstrations in South Korea. Reoccurrence of such ‘history wars’-genre in the news shows that history is anything but over in the post-Cold War East Asia: it remains as a source of pessimism for IR-theorists and other sceptics in spite of the economic interdependence of China, Japan and South Korea. Although the media coverage tends to focus on the antics of Japanese historical revisionists, Japan is hardly alone: Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has frequently changed it to suit the current political canon and South Korea prosecutes dissident academics who go against the official narrative. To understand how the present-day discourse concerning the East Asian ‘history wars’ came to be, review of the term and the region’s history is in order.

‘History wars’ as an East Asian-phenomenon can be traced back to 1982 when the changes to the contents of Japanese text books first became internationalized once the media reports regarding the changes, such as switching the Japanese Imperial Army’s ‘invasion’ of Northern China into ‘advance’, sparked outrage in China and South Korea. Thereafter the Japanese history education joined the controversial Yasukuni shrine as an instrument of foreign debates between Japan, China and South Korea. However, the term ‘history wars’ itself is somewhat misleading, as barring the occasional outlier the countries in question tend to agree on ancient history and disagreements tend to centre around modern history.

As is often the case in modern Asia, the crux of ‘history wars’ stems from the events of the late 19th/early 20th century (1868-1945) with the heart of the matter being about conflicting views regarding Japan’s actions during the period. Unlike China and Korea, Japan was able to successfully modernize itself following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and made use of this advantage at its neighbour’s expense. Imperial Japan imitated the western Great Powers by forging an empire of its own that left it in control of Taiwan, Korean Peninsula and parts of China alongside numerous Pacific Isles that lasted until Japan lost the war in 1945. 

While Japan and its neighbours agree about the broad course of events depicted above, the devil lies in the details. Chinese and South Korean narratives tend to paint Japan’s colonial rule, imperialism and wartime conduct as uniquely harsh. On the other hand, the mainstream Japanese narrative acknowledges Japan’s war crimes, such as the Nanking massacre of 1937 and use of ‘comfort women’, but argues that Japan’s conduct did not qualitatively differ from the other imperialist countries or norms of the time. 

These opposing views are exacerbated by domestic politics of the countries. For example, the revisionist activities of Japanese right-wing activists advocating for interpretations and phrasings that minimize Japan’s war-time culpability serve as fuel for China and South Korea’s own anti-Japanese historic narratives. Since these narratives are central to the post-war national identities of China and South Korea, whether Japanese colonial rule and imperialism were at all qualitatively different from the Western countries becomes less important than the official Chinese and Korean narratives. They are domestically too useful and important to easily relinquish.
Why have the ‘history wars’ persisted for decades without proper reconciliation between the parties? When it comes to potential reconciliation between Japan and its Korean and Chinese neighbours, the story of Germany and Poland is often brought as an example. Yet despite the superficial similarities, the context of East Asian ‘history wars’ makes such comparison misleading due to several reasons.

First and foremost is timing: Germany and Poland’s reconciliation occurred when the memories were still fresh, whereas during Japan’s respective period of introspection regarding their wartime conduct in 1960’s and early 70’s its Chinese and Korean interlocutors were not at the same wavelength. Mao’s China focused on attempting to pry Japan out of the US-bloc and encouraged the Japanese to move past the recent history and focus on the future. Similarly, South Korea under General Park’s rule was more concerned with economic development to match North Korea than historical introspection, sentiment likely aided by Park’s own domestically flammable history as a Japanese collaborator. Thus, the crucial chance for coming to a consensus regarding modern history was lost. 

Secondly, absent from the East Asian context was a mutual enemy like USSR which Germany and Poland had. Shared suffering under the communist rule both [East] Germans and Poles were subjected to combined with the recency of the Soviet atrocities allowed the Poles to be more forgiving towards Germans as it was in the interests of both to reconcile and cooperate. In comparison, China and Japan lacked such factors driving them together. As for South Korea, the shared Cold War alignment proved to be insufficient motivator for reconciliation as that would have required re-examining the anti-Japanism which its post-war national identity was built on. As General Park’s regime was already straining under domestic opposition and competing with North Korea over legitimacy, revisiting recent history was far too risky a gamble with dubious payoffs.

If the present situation of the East Asian ‘history wars’ is a bothersome mess, then what of the future? As the best timing for reconciliation and the propitious conditions for it has been missed, the picture is rather dark. China, Japan, and South Korea’s respective narratives have strengthened over time and are unlikely to change due to domestic pressures. Barring a cataclysmic change to the region that would necessitate the reconfiguration of the post-1945 order, it seems unlikely that any of the countries in question would consider radical changes desirable or necessary. While anything can happen in theory, there is little cause for optimism for radical changes at this point in time. 
Tommi siltala
Tommi Siltala is studying a masters in Asian Studies at Lund University, and has a wide interest in East Asia.