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.