65 Years After The Asia Pacific War: The End of History Politics?

Memo #15

Julian Dierkes

It is not that the contentious issues have been resolved, or that a general history lovefest has broken out across East Asia. But international exchanges over historical controversies have been toned down, especially between South Korea and Japan. The 65th anniversary of Japan’s surrender passed quietly on August 15th, 2010. The U.S. ambassador to Japan’s participation in the ceremony to commemorate the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th was the most commented-on element of the anniversary.

So, what happened? Throughout the 80s and 90s, heated exchanges between Japanese and other East Asian officials over Japan’s responsibility for the Asia Pacific War were a common occurrence. The exchanges were sparked by Japanese history schoolbooks and were regularly reignited by inappropriate comments and actions from Japanese politicians. The current Japanese government managed to halt this seemingly endless series of gaffes. This month, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan pointedly committed his cabinet to not visit the Yasukuni Shrine that commemorates Japanese war dead. He also re-issued earlier apologies for the colonial rule of Korea, which South Korean President Myung-Bak Lee accepted.

Outside Japan, the tone of discussions has also changed. Debates about historical developments in Korea are increasingly inward-looking, rather than focusing strictly on past interactions with the Japanese empire. Commentaries earlier this year focused on the differences that emerged from the Japan-South Korea Joint History Research Committee. These differences appear to be of interpretation and are not historiographical canyons.

East Asian countries share a historiographical perspective that sees secondary education as a place for students to learn rather than to understand history. Textbooks throughout the region focus on “facts” that make up a historical timeline and politics affect which facts are included. This approach does not lend itself to a discussion of historical responsibility. In the context of a rich shared history and a shared historiographical perspective, history politics may not have ended in East Asia, but exchanges are taking on a very different tone and substance. While controversies are likely to continue to flare up, the long-term trend is an encouraging one of declining animosity and vitriol.

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  • Historical Issues, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2010 (a webpage outlining government positions on “historical issues”)

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