History in the Rear View: Sino-Japanese Harmony on Developing East Asian Community

People like me — Anglophone university professors of East Asia  — make a living picking over the bones of the Sino-Japanese relationship, researching the aftermath of the traumas of the Second World War.  Untangling the matrix of mutual historical grievances is a lifelong task for most, because of the multiplicity of issues involved.

Does one chide Japan for its inability to confront atrocities committed during the Second World War,  delve into the spiritual-political currents surging around Yasukuni Shrine [靖国神社] as Prime Ministerial footsteps echo past prayers for Tojo, then finish with with an angry Sheldonesque flourish on biological weapons atrocities?  And, unexhausted by the task — even refreshed by the everclear Red Bull of moral clarity! — one might even continue with examinations of Japanese war criminal-become Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke.  After all, his Wikipedia entry, to say nothing of the big and burly bound volume book variety of research, is awfully scanty.  And American scholars in particular do enjoy leveling opprobrium at such men, and their patrons in Washington, D.C.   We aren’t so different from the Tea Party crowd after all: it feels good to be mad, and speak and write without qualification.

Or, fearing the iron whiplashed thicket of romaji, katakana, and hiragana, and longing for the simple strokes of the Communist-simplified format of 汉字,  does one focus instead focus on the new behemoth of East Asia, the People’s Republic of China, writing with awed horror as a witness of the intermingling between China’s rising power and its unquenchable anger stemming from humiliation by Japan?

Either way, you win: you’re a historian, and you are relevant.  Any outburst of anger on the Pacific Rim simply confirms as much.

Like a terrible car accident, here, standing at the edge of the Pacific forge of conflict, there is simply so much fodder for the eyes that it is hard to walk away.   Faced with such a mine of atrocity, a present milieu so obviously entangled in the past, and the promise of a paycheck, historians like myself are drawn repeatedly to the scene.

But what if everything changed?

What if everyone forgot the war?

What if the postwar conservative coalition in Japan — the Liberal Democratic Party — finally fell from grace, and Japan had some kind of wierd rebirth?  And governments, not just visionary intellectuals, in East Asia started talking seriously about a common, EU-style community?

Here, in more concrete style, is the news that prompted me to think about the issue:

BEIJING, Sept. 17 (Xinhua) — China on Thursday expressed support for the idea of creating an East Asian Community mentioned by Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu commented on the idea in response to a question about China’s attitude towards it.

Hatoyama has said his government would promote the long-term idea of an East Asian Community modelled on the European Union with a common currency.

Jiang said it is a long-term objective of East Asian cooperation to establish an East Asian Community to promote lasting peace in East Asia and boost the economic and social development of the region in a comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable way.

“It is also the consensus of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as China, Japan and Republic of Korea,” she told a regular press conference.

China is committed to working with East Asian countries including Japan to further deepen cooperation in the region and striving for the goal of an East Asian Community, Jiang said.

There is still tons of work to be done — and strong nationalist sentiments and grieveances in East Asia are going to continue to serve as barriers to regional integration.  Few people are thinking as intelligently about this issue as these working groups at Stanford University, and the Memory and Reconciliation project at George Washington University isn’t far behind.

But in the short term, it’s worth keeping an eye on a few things:

1. Recognize that China talks big about protecting its sovereignty, but is very intrigued for economic reasons in a kind of EU-style community.  Even in its communist era, the PRC was intrigued by internationalism and dissolving national differences so long as it was done under a kind of tacit understanding of Chinese leadership.

2. Note the complete absence of the DPRK from the Chinese Foreign Ministry statements.  North Korea is the most serious obstacle to regional integration.  Its recalcitrance extends to things as small as fora on tourism in Northeast Asia which happened this past weekend in Changchun.  How strange is it to be talking about trips to Paektu without a North Korean representative there?  Which leads to:

3. What are the symbolic aspects of East Asian unity?  Is there anything to a common iconography?  Or is it simply worship of modernization, the way that Chinese architecture students in France, like the blazingly talented 野城(Wild City) go all in for the future,that finally allows for emancipation from the past?

Ultimately those of us who traffic in historical grieveances might need to find alternate lines of analysis.  After all, if cities like Detroit and Cleveland could rip up their street cars to arm everyone with automobiles in the 1950s, certainly we can start planning for a new obsolescence.  Thirty years from now, do you really want your students to be working on the same problems?  No more nightmares!  I’m ready to imagine a new East Asian community — at least for a Sunday afternoon.

Jiang Bins Ectopia, via Ye Cheng
Jiang Bin's "Ectopia," via Ye Cheng


  1. Optimism? Reconciliation?! I dunno. I can just see the future rejection note from the publisher: “Cathcart, you know that personally I find your ideas interesting, but from a professional standpoint I need either gloom from the past or doom for the future. I suggest you consider a rewrite along those lines…”

    1. …from a professional standpoint I need either gloom from the past or doom for the future.” Fantastic! Projecting the apocalyptic ethos of their own industry outward, I suppose. But you’re right: from a Western marketing standpoint the buffeting image of a giant mob of Chinese students stomping all over a Japanese bus after a soccer game brings a bigger crowd than, say, a little chamber music concert at a Chaoyang gallery by a Sino-Japanese string quartet. Now maybe if the peace and happiness people could get a little more dramatic, a la a Jimi Hendrix guitar burn, e.g., dramatize and render their actions more galvanizing, then more eyeballs might turn, albeit lazily, to the pacific aspects of the bilateral relations.

      1. On a tangentially-related theme, I was also wondering if it is possible to have a totalitarian “ectopia.” No one ever said that dictatorships couldn’t be carbon-neutral.

  2. I guess Japan will continue to serve as a threat in the cupboard, unless China’s leaders (CCP or other) find something more positive than fear to keep their country together. My take of Jiang Yu’s words is that Beijing doesn’t want to be responsible for spoiling the atmosphere now. Before they’d subscribe to a common currency… as you say, a lot of work would need to be done. Enough to feel safe from that kind of common future for the moment.
    Japan, too, will neither forget the war, nor take an approach similar to Germany’s – Japan took practical steps to convince its neighbors of its no-more-bellicose intentions, such as development aid, but showed a dislike for public mea culpas. That’s a pretty “East-Asian” approach, I believe.
    But apart from that, there are of course many parallels between WW2 in Asia and Europe, and its aftermaths in both regions, too.
    For one, people in many Asian countries, including Chinese, were victims of an expansionist Japan, just as were many European countries of an expansionist Germany. The collective way in which China remembers the bitter past can easily make us forget that there are still many people alive who remember atrocities personally, in Asia, and in Europe. There are still survivors. There are still the children and grandchildren of survivors, and a lot of psychological burdens are still passed through the generations. Survivors’ children may receive an education different from other peoples’ children.
    A new collective approach in Asia might change many things, but it won’t make memories and their effects go away.
    This isn’t meant to be a big Ach. I’m not into melodrama. I just think it’s practical to remember that memories don’t go away. There are only smart and not so smart ways to handle them.
    So maybe – and hopefully – students thirty years from now will deal with different problems. But the war history won’t go away.

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