The Importance of Memory in Shaping East Asian Relations

The Memorial to the Nanjing Massacre, Nanjing, China. Photo: Cornelius Kibelka via Flickr.The Memorial to the Nanjing Massacre, Nanjing, China. Photo: Cornelius Kibelka via Flickr.

Criticising the realist lens of analysis in IR seems akin to beating a dead horse. Many theorists of international relations (IR) have given countless reasons that a purely realist lens of analysis is flawed. Yet although they reject political realism in the abstract, many theorists will return to it when analysing countries that are less familiar to them. In these situations, there is often recourse to a view wherein the state is conceived through a Machiavellian prism as a realist unit that has no preferences aside from its own survival and expansion. For example, Realist theories are often espoused in relation to East Asian politics, an example of which is the prediction that other states will seek to counterbalance the rising power of China or the military threat of North Korea. Yet, somewhat predictably, this is not sufficient for a deep understanding of the politics of East Asia.

There are a variety of factors that influence the accuracy of realist theories – individual leaders, trade relations, international organisations – yet, by far the most important in East Asia, is the salience of history. History has a role to play in all IR analysis. Rational choice theorists may like to think of our political decisions as ahistorical and rational phenomena, but the impact of history is indelible. In countries such as China, Japan and Korea, where there has been an interruption in the historical continuity of the state in the last century that led to a radical restructuring of politics and civil society, the historical circumstances of the regime are fundamental to politics. For all three states, this interruption occurred in the form of World War II.As a result, conflict is a kernel of Asian state identity. Leaders have invoked the experiences of war –episodes of loss and destruction – in an attempt to construct a nationalistic narrative.

However, the experience of warfare in these three countries differed drastically. Therefore, their construction of identity differs and so does its impact on international relations.

Divergent Interpretations of World War II

In China, a popular political narrative involves the Sino-Japanese war, and the atrocities suffered by the Chinese people during it. The Nanjing Massacre, a 6-week period in December 1937 during which Japanese soldiers killed and raped civilians in Nanjing, is a key point of contention, with China marking its 80thanniversary last year with a nationally televised ceremony at the Nanjing memorial museum. This museum is not the only one of its kind: Sino-Japanese war museums and memorials are common across China, with many dedicated to a specific aspect of the Chinese people’s subordination (e.g. sex slavery).  The state also promotes memories of the war through national holidays such as the National Day of Remembrance for the Nanjing Massacre, or through the official changing of historical narrative by moving the war’s origin point from 1937 to 1931 – thereby creating the impression of a longer and more costly war. This narrative is inculcated to the extent that the Chinese pop culture has begun to reflect it with TV programs and movies set during the war depicting extraordinary violence.

Similarly, much of Korea’s national narrative is centred on the perceived wrongdoings of the Japanese during the imperial period. The experience of colonisation is a formative element of Korean identity, with Japan depicted as an imperialistic power that brutalised and led to the division of the country. The sense of unity that is created by this is illustrated by the highly derogatory term ‘chinilpa’, which refers to an individual who cooperated with the Japanese regime during the occupation. There are more particular points of tension, with the ‘comfort women’ being the most significant. Most Koreans understand ‘comfort women’ to be Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese regime during the war. Korean history textbooks disseminate the view that the military abducted these women and girls. The extent to which this narrative is accepted and perpetuated is shown by the fact that any scholars who voice a contrary opinion, such as Park Yu Ha who argued that it wasn’t the Japanese government but private institutions that created comfort stations, are accused of defamation.

Although an agreement, signed in December 2015, required Japan to formally apologise and contribute 1 billion yen to compensate the living survivors or families of the deceased, the agreement is highly contested by the Korean public. Many Koreans argue that there should have been direct hearings conducted with the survivors prior to any agreement being signed. Activists have therefore continued to install new statues of comfort women in Busan and San Francisco, and the current president, Moon Jae In, has argued that the agreement was flawed and has called for more sincere apologies from Japan. Additionally, the widespread resentment felt toward Japan is further illustrated by the Moon administrations’ visit to China during the 80thanniversary of the Nanjing massacre, in an attempt to capitalize on their shared narratives as victims of Japanese imperialism. That this trip occurred illustrates the persistence of Anti-Japanese sentiment amongst Korean politicians despite the fact that Sino-Korean history also contains significant contentions: most notably, China supported the North Korean army during the Korean War.

By contrast, the Japanese narrative contradicts the official histories of both China and South Korea. A well-known proponent of Japanese focus on historical identity is the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe’s interpretation of East Asian history differs markedly from that of Korean and Chinese leaders. Abe’s right-wing nationalist party supports a revisionist version of history, calling for a reassessment of the 1993 Kono Statement, which recognised the Japanese government’s complicity with regards to comfort women. He has openly criticised US textbook publishers for their account of comfort women and he considers their depiction to jeopardize the welfare of Japanese children living in the United States. Abe has outspokenly objected to the comfort women statues in San Francisco and Busan, asserting that the 2015 deal was premised on the South Korean government addressing the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Abe has further asserted that all three of these statues are violations of Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention wherein a host country must protect foreign diplomats against ‘disturbance of the peace’ or ‘impairment of dignity’. Some individuals within Abe’s party will deny the Nanjing massacre, and Japan has withheld UNESCO funding because the organisation chose to list Nanjing Massacre documents in its Memory of the World register. Instead, Japan’s narrative centers on the wrongdoings of the allied powers, and the suffering of the Japanese people at the hands of the West.

Abe’s 2013 visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates victims of war including 14 Class A war criminals, stresses this rejection of the Korean and Chinese interpretations of history. Indeed, following his visit, South Korea released a press statement asserting that the action glorifies Japan’s war of aggression and forcible colonization of the Korean Peninsula and was nullifying the basis of Japan’s post-war return to the international community.Similarly, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson argued that it was a wrongful attitude to historical issues. Following this, it is understandable that the Moon government is calling for another apology, as they perceive the actions of the Japanese government as depicting the fact that they do not subscribe to the narrative of responsibility perpetuated by the Korean government.

Impact on International Relations

This is not to say that all conflict in East Asia can be accounted through the prism of historical memory. But, it presents a significant impediment to co-operation in peacetime and war preparations thereby bringing into question the realist assumption that other countries would band together to fight North Korea. Indeed, the persistent and intractable natures of their historical narratives mean that employing tools of diplomacy becomes difficult. The comfort women continually drives a wedge between Japanese and South Korean cooperation, and the framework for trilateral policy coordination between Japan, South Korea, and the US was only facilitated by progress in the comfort women agreement in 2015. However, even with this framework for trilateral policy coordination between Japan, South Korea, and the US, every time they have tried to conduct exercises to simulate a crisis on the Korean peninsula, it has been blocked by either Korea or Japan. This illustrates the continual mistrust between the two states. Such distrust is unsurprising given that, despite the formal resolution of the comfort women issue through the 2015 agreement, many in Korea (including the President) argue that it has not been fully resolved.

Lack of diplomacy have contributed to the rising military prominence of the region with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean defense spending increasing drastically. China plans to boost its military spending by 8.1% in 2018, having already increased it by 7% over 2017. From 2011 to 2017, the defense spending of Japan rose to $46 billion – its largest ever value – as a result of six years of annual increases in spending under Shinzo Abe. Similarly, in 2017, the South Korean national assembly passed the 2017 budget that allocated 10% of the total to defense – a 4% increase from the year before.This is partially due to the increasing presence of North Korea and consequently America in the region. But, undoubtedly, historical memories also play a part in pushing leaders to militarise. This is particularly the case in reference to China and South Korea, who use Japan’s militarization to justify their own increase in spending on arms. Indeed should US military support in the region (specifically South Korea and / or Japan) decrease or cease, a nuclear arms race could be triggered as each states tries to defend themselves against their ‘untrustworthy’ neighbours. In this scenario, even just one country choosing to adopt nuclear arms against North Korea, would lead all the others to do so as well because of the historical threat they have posed. Given the repudiation of US influence in their countries by Moon and Abe, and Trump’s previous accusations of South Korean freeloading, this is a possibility that cannot be discounted.

It can be argued that the current situation amongst these states is aggravated by the fact that the governments in power are all especially nationalist. Abe is clearly nationalist and conservative, supporting revisionist histories of Japan. Moon is also nationalist, stressing the injustices suffered by the Korean people not only due to the corruption of previous democratic regimes, but also the Japanese regime. Xi continues to invoke the concept of the ‘Chinese people’ to bolster his regime. Yet it is unclear if more cosmopolitan leaders would change the situation, because of the ingrained nature of these histories in forming the identity of citizens in these states. In recent Pew surveys, 81% of Chinese respondents had an unfavourable view of Japan, and 77% thought that Japan had not sufficiently apologized for its wartime actions. Similarly, 83% of Japanese respondents declared an overall unfavourable view of China, with 89% seeing it as a threat to Japan. 83% of respondents to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey voiced support of the Japanese government’s stance of refusing additional demands from the South Korean government regarding the comfort women issue, and 78% said that South Korea was ‘not very trustworthy’ or ‘not trustworthy at all’. By contrast in 2017 it was found that 75% of South Koreans think the comfort women issue was unresolved. Ultimately, this strong public opinion places pressure on governments, even more moderate ones, to espouse this confrontational stance in its relations to other countries in order to gain and maintain democratic power.

As a result, it is unclear what can be done about the irreconcilability of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese histories – they are not simply state sanctioned narratives, but are salient parts of the personal narratives and imaginations of many of each country’s population. Efforts to change government education will likely lead to significant backlash from these publics. Time is, perhaps, the only resolution: waiting for these long-held histories to become less relevant to younger generations, a phenomenon that can already be seen amongst some of the younger generations in Korea who tend to reject nationalist discourse.