By Alexandra Sakaki – alexandra. sakaki [at] swp-berlin.org
Despite the United States’ shift in strategic attention to the Asia Pacific, fiscal constraints and defence spending cuts highlight the need for greater military cooperation among Asian partner countries. There are myriad security issues in the region. Japan and South Korea, the two key US allies in Asia, are significant actors in this context. But enhanced defence cooperation continues to be hampered by controversies regarding Japan’s history of aggression on the Korean peninsula. In mid-May, Seoul cancelled the planned signing of two military accords with Tokyo, citing domestic criticism on any military pact amid unresolved bilateral history issues.
What can be done to promote greater reconciliation between the two countries? Scholars have pointed to a civil society-led, “bottom-up” process of reconciliation. Non-governmental projects between Japan and South Korea are important and encouraging but significantly limited. For example, history textbook talks are widely acknowledged as an important tool in reconciliation efforts. Over the past decade, numerous civil society projects have published joint history textbooks. But public awareness remains limited and school adoption rates are low.
To promote a transnational reconstruction of the past, history textbook talks should be officially endorsed by the government and supported by a critical mass of politicians. Government representatives lend legitimacy and credibility to history textbook projects and thus help to overcome domestic opposition. They are crucial actors who exert influence over history teaching guidelines and curricula.
In this regard, Asia can learn from Europe’s experience in settling disputes between former enemies. In the case of German-Polish history textbook consultations, a key requirement for success was that politicians actively pursued the dual goal of demonstrating high-level commitment to the work of historians, while proactively shielding the bilateral commission from nationalistic pressures.
Reflecting on Europe’s experience and keeping in mind the need for closer bilateral security cooperation, Japanese and Korean politicians must do more to settle ongoing history disputes. Holding history textbook talks under the auspices of UNESCO, for instance, would help create an environment more conducive to historians’ discussions. As an intergovernmental organization, UNESCO underscores political backing, while its international authority and esteem cast legitimacy on the endeavor.
Alexandra Sakaki – Robert Bosch Foundation research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin, Germany.
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- Cold Comfort for Japan-South Korea Ties, Asia Times Online, May 2012.
- Nihon to kankoku de no rekishi kyōtsū kyōzai [Common Historical Consciousness and common History Teaching Materials in Japan and Korea], Gakujutsu no Dōkō, 2009.
- Japanese-South Korean Textbook Talks: The Necessity of Political Leadership, Pacific Affairs, 2012. (By Alexandra Sakaki)
- Japan and Germany as Regional Actors: Evaluating Change and Continuity after the Cold War, September 2012 (forthcoming). (Book by Alexandra Sakaki)
- Different Beds, Same Nightmare – The Politics of History in Germany and Japan, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, 2009.
- Postwar History Education in Japan and the Germanys: Guilty Lessons, 2010. (Book by Julian Dierkes)
- Japanese History Textbook Controversies: The Missing Link (Memo #144, by Kazuya Fukuoka)
- How Finnish, not East Asian Education Became a Global Reference (Memo #132, by Keita Takayama – Japanese translation here)
- OECD’s PISA, Media Sensationalism, and Education Reform in Japan (Memo #47, by Keita Takayama – Japanese translation here)
- 65 Years After The Asia Pacific War: The End of History Politics? (Memo #15, by Julian Dierkes)
- Is South Korea’s Hyper-Education System The Future? (Memo #2, by Julian Dierkes)
- Other Memos inspired by Pacific Affairs articles