Can East Asia Move Past Its History Problem?

Can Washington take advantage of an unusual opportunity to advance both its strategic and normative interests?

In East Asia, distrust and failed cooperation is often blamed on the region’s “history problem.” To date, that conversation has emphasized Japan’s failure to atone for its World War II-era atrocities, how this poisons contemporary relations, and how Japan must show greater contrition in order to make things right. Sometimes the United States is exhorted to pressure Tokyo for more apologies.

The United States should help its allies and partners deal with the region’s history problem, and in doing so, can take advantage of an unusual opportunity to advance both its strategic and normative interests. Washington has a national security interest in strengthening its relations with Tokyo; in encouraging close ties between Japan and other American partners, especially South Korea; and in thwarting Chinese efforts to use history to drive a wedge between Japan and its neighbors. Furthermore, the United States has a normative interest in drawing attention to human rights abuses in East Asia today.

U.S. national security and normative interests overlap—and yet Washington has so far missed the opportunity to advance them in this case. That’s because it’s a challenge on the one hand to focus on contemporary human rights abuses without making survivors of World War II-era violence feel as if their suffering is being forgotten or marginalized. And it’s a challenge on the other hand to focus on those events to a sufficient degree without unfairly singling out Tokyo.

The United States and its partners can square this circle by reframing the conversation about East Asia’s history problem. The conversation about Japan’s World War II atrocities should be fit within the historic sweep of human rights abuses in East Asia. In the past, human rights violations were committed by colonizers and combatants like Japan, the United States, and others; but today are committed by authoritarian governments against their own peoples.

Why Apologies are Unproductive

The apology frame is a dead end for three reasons. First, Japan has apologized. A lot. Although critics will protest that Japan only offered half-hearted apologies, this is unfair. For example, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, often described as a far-right nationalist because he visited Yasukuni shrine, also visited Seoul’s Seodaemun prison. This was where, during Japan’s rule of the Korean peninsula, colonial authorities incarcerated, tortured, and killed Korean independence leaders and their family members. Today the prison features a museum that explicitly details Japanese atrocities, and a monument to Korean independence leaders.

Koizumi laid a wreath at the memorial and offered his “heartfelt remorse and apology for the tremendous damage and suffering Japan caused the South Korean people during its colonial rule.” Koizumi commented that after he viewed the prison exhibits, “I felt strong regret for the pains Korean people suffered during Japanese colonial rule. As a politician and a man, I believe we must not forget the pain of [Korean] people.”

Koizumi’s apology was far from isolated. Another prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, gave an important apology during a trip to South Korea. He said:

“During Japan's colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, the Korean people were forced to suffer unbearable pain and sorrow in various ways. They were deprived of the opportunity to learn their mother tongue at school, they were forced to adopt Japanese names, forced to provide sex as ‘comfort women’ for Japanese troops, forced to provide labor. I hereby express genuine contrition and offer my deepest apologies for my country, the aggressor’s, acts.”

Because these statements accepted Japanese guilt, enumerated Japanese crimes, and were offered at symbolic locations, they were powerful apologies by any standard. And other Japanese leaders have offered several other impressive statements, including Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 apology that subsequent governments (including Shinzo Abe’s) have reaffirmed.

The Japanese people know that their leaders have apologized, so when those gestures are ignored and Tokyo is repeatedly asked to apologize again, many people protest. They argue that Chinese and South Korean leaders are not truly interested in reconciliation, but are wielding the history weapon to score domestic political points at Japan’s expense.

A second reason why the apology frame is so counterproductive is that political apologies, particularly interstate apologies, are usually quite controversial domestically. People often describe apologies as a medicine that will have healing effects. Perhaps sometimes they will. But like any medicine, apologies also have side effects, which are sometimes toxic.

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