Coming to terms with its past

Japan is a country haunted by its history. Despite decades of good trade and political relations, shared popular culture, and extensive foreign aid to neighboring countries, many of its neighbors still resent Japan’s actions during World War II. Beyond apologies, there is much that needs to be done to assure not only peace in East Asia, but also that Japan’s goodwill of recent decades is not tainted by its past mistakes.

A similar problem exists on the side of Japan’s neighbors. Museums that insufficiently distinguish between past conflict and current amicable relations disinhibit violence among generations of citizens. Such institutions perpetuate the dangerous resentment between Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese of the last hundred years and more, creating instability and hatred where there can be enduring peace and cooperation.

From April 2003, the ICfC focused on dealing with the unresolved issue of “comfort women” (Japanese sex slaves during World War II, some of whom are still alive). Our staff has met on many occasions with leaders of NGOs and community and political leaders. Cooperation continued throughout 2004, developing prospects of Korean-Japanese cooperation on this and related issues. The Korea Christian Academy was brought into the project, and a number of lectures and workshops took place at this institution. In Japan, meetings were aimed at identifying solutions to the “comfort women” issue. The Japanese government funded the Asian Women’s Fund to deal with these questions, but this approach has been unacceptable to the South Korean counterparts who expect the initiative to come from the government itself. The ICfC continues to facilitate mediation and the exchange of new ideas, between the South Korean NGOs with the officials at the Japanese Foreign Ministry and with members of the Japanese parliament. While these talks have not led to an ultimate resolution to the disputed history, they are the beginning of further conciliation on this issue in the coming months and years, as these issues, often dismissed as peripheral, prompt violent demonstrations and undiplomatic exchanges that we read about on the front pages of the international press.

ICfC’s focus is on dialogue between China, Korea and Japan on broader issues of disputed history and cultural tensions between these societies. We brought on an associate, Lilian Sing, former U.S. federal judge, who will help us coordinate these efforts with the Japanese American and Chinese American communities. The Institute surveyed a broad array of NGOs, government agencies and international agencies in Japan and Korea that were working on these historical disputes. Beside the “Comfort Women” issue, there are many others, including the controversy and anger over the messages about history presented in history museums and social studies textbooks of all three nations. Specifically regarding textbooks, we are dealing with non-governmental organizations in both Korea and Japan who are interested in, and capable of, redrafting textbooks to reflect a more accurate, multi-perspective view of the history between these two nations. Our focus is on the young generation, the new “consumers of history” who will have to negotiate for their own history from the narratives to which they are exposed. The Institute is seeking funds for a “workshop to bring Japanese and Korean youth together for a summer focused on discovering conflicting perspectives on their history and mediating the meanings of their disputed histories for themselves and the relations between their societies. Our boot camp will focus not only on the history and narratives these young people face about colonialism and militarism, but also the cultural debates over “indebtedness” and relative cultural influence. One of the Institute’s resident fellows, Professor Imho Bae (who teaches social work in Korea), is assisting us with the engagement. These issues, unresolved, perpetuate the dangerous resentment between Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese of the last hundred years and more. Several visits to NGOs and productive discussions with the lay and professional leadership enabled us to develop valuable perspectives on how different sets of activists in both Korea and China view the conflicts with Japan and the opportunities for resolution.

In the course of these meetings, we were able to share with them information on their counterparts on the Japanese-side and encourage certain individuals whom our staff determined had the best opportunity to communicate effectively their positions. We also discovered new relations bringing together young Japanese and Korean for dialogue and conviviality with the hope of improving relations. It is not an unusual role for the “outsider” who is unencumbered by local intrigues and resentments to be able to establish new channels of communication that heretofore have not existed. Our President, Dr. Hillel Levine, taught at a Christian university in South Korea, which afforded him the opportunity to begin connections with professional associations of clergy, particularly the Korea Christian Academy. Several wonderful introductions made by our board members, Peggy and Don Shriver, who have visited South Korea and are well known there for their writings and activities, also contributed to the effective utilization of a relatively short period of time in Korea. We wish to continue our shuttle diplomacy activities in order to convene the key stakeholders from all sides. Our staff also spent two days at the Asia Center in Odawara, Japan, where a group of approximately thirty Asian leaders were meeting to discuss future relations between their countries. We spent this time with enormously talented young people from some of the trouble spots of Asia and to help them think through their commitments to resolving local and regional conflicts.

More recently, the Institute has been exploring the possibilities for using popular media as a countervailing force to one-sided or hate-filled depictions of history in the public consciousness.  One possible way both to educate and to raise a public dialogue about history, memory, and international relations, rather than to incite hatred, may be through “manga,” a form of comic book popular in Japan that often contains references, stories and depictions of events set in the World War II era.  More information on the potential of manga to foster honest reflection on the past may become available if the ICfC’s exploration of this topic proves fruitful.


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