As Cold War tensions in East Asia diminished from the 1980s onwards and as the events of the Asia-Pacific War receded, it might have been assumed that memories of war and colonialism would also fade. Instead, the opposite has happened. Unresolved issues of historical justice and restitution have smouldered and, fanned by the winds of rising nationalisms, emerged as sparks which threaten to ignite new regional antagonisms.
In the past two years particularly, the governments of the region have staged a series of contending political performances to enshrine or to erase the memory of particular historical events, particularly events associated with Japan’s early twentieth century imperial expansion and the Asia-Pacific war. The December 2013 visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine — the Shinto shrine to the war dead in which executed war criminals are also venerated — evoked fierce criticisms from Korea and China.
These criticisms were amplified in mid-2014, when the Japanese government appointed a committee to re-examine the process that led to the issuing of the 1993 Kono Declaration, which is the Japanese government’s most significant apology to women from Korea and elsewhere coerced into military brothels during the war. The committee’s report is widely perceived as having undermined public confidence in the declaration and undone much of the good achieved by the 1993 apology.
Meanwhile, in January 2014 a new museum was opened inside railway station in the Chinese city of Harbin, the site of the assassination in October 1909 of Japanese elder statesman and former resident-general of Korea Ito Hirobumi. The memorial, proposed during the meeting of South Korean President Park Geun-hye with Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013, was greeted with expressions of outrage from the Japanese government and from many sections of the media in Japan, for it honours the memory not of Ito but of his assassin, prominent Korean nationalist Ahn Jung-geun, who was subsequently executed for the crime by the Japanese Kwantung military administration. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga Yoshihide, lodged official objections with the South Korean and Chinese governments, describing Ahn as ‘a terrorist who was sentenced to death for killing our country’s first prime minister’. The memorial’s proponents, on the other hand, retort that Ahn was not a mere assassin but a political idealist and the author of a visionary (though incomplete) plan for peace in East Asia.
But it is perhaps a small incident, little reported in the global media, that most poignantly highlights the destructive, and self-destructive, nature of these conflicts. In 2004, a group of concerned citizens from Japan’s Gunma prefecture erected a monument to Korean forced labourers in a local park. The monument commemorates Koreans who were forcibly brought to Japan during the war to work in mines and on construction sites, where many died. It is a simple stone structure, whose inscription includes the words ‘remembrance, reflection and friendship’ in Japanese, Korean and English. Memorial ceremonies at this site have brought together Japanese locals and members of the Korean community in Japan in shared acts of commemoration.
The Gunma monument is just one of many small-scale local efforts by Japanese citizens and Korean residents in Japan to inscribe the memory of war in public consciousness and to promote a better shared understanding of wartime history between Japan and its neighbours. Dozens of similar citizens’ initiatives have emerged over past decades in a number of local communities from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. Japanese academics, publishers, schoolteachers and others have also initiated a wide range of cross-border networks with counterparts in China and South Korea in an effort to create better common understandings of history.
Though these grassroots actions have had relatively little effect on government policy, and have rarely been reported by the media inside or outside Japan, they demonstrate a widespread and sincere popular Japanese recognition of the wrongs of the past and a hope for peaceful relationships with the other peoples of the region.
But now, with the rise in nationalist emotions in Japan and the region more widely, the Gunma memorial has come under attack from a variety of right-wing groups whose members have bombarded the prefectural government with complaints that the monument is ‘anti-Japanese’. In July 2014, the prefectural authorities announced that they would not renew the planning permission that allows the Gunma monument to remain in place, forcing the citizens who created this symbol of reconciliation and goodwill to remove it. Elsewhere, similar attacks on the work of reconciliation groups are gathering force.
Reading news reports on the Gunma monument, one wonders how world opinion would react if complaints from German far-right groups led to the destruction of that country’s monuments to its forced labourers. The removal of the Gunma memorial, if it goes ahead, will not change the facts of history nor will it make the world forget those facts.
The Japanese authorities, rather than trying to undo the decades of good work that has been done by their own citizens to build bridges to Asian neighbours, should be celebrating and supporting that work. Japan’s rich tradition of grassroots reconciliation action has generated a wealth of networks and knowhow that political leaders could use and learn from. The Gunma memorial and others like it should be preserved and embraced as small but precious monuments, not just to the victims of imperial violence and war but also to the goodwill of the many Japanese citizens who long for regional peace, cooperation and understanding.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.