Not long ago, there was talk of the “end of history,” as if the post-Cold War era gave the nations of the world—especially dynamic East Asia—a compelling opportunity to put aside troubled historical memories. Instead, history in the past quarter century has continued to divert progress toward forging a future-oriented regional community. Many looked to 2015 with dread, fearing that Japan under Abe Shinzo would arouse deeper historical cleavages. Yet, Abe navigated the year without serious fallout, alleviating US worries and reaching a breakthrough on the most sensitive issue with South Korea. Having passed through those troubled waters, is there a smoother sail ahead? Are bilateral relations formally weighted down by historical grievances facing a rosier outlook? We focus on five cases for clarity on the impact of historical memory: South Korean and Chinese images of each other’s history, Chinese and Russian images of Japanese history, and Japanese images of South Korean history—all with an eye to grasp how memories are undermining bilateral relationships today.
When another country’s history looks bleak, especially as it relates to one’s own history, prospects for bilateral relations may appear dismal. Japanese have scant hope for closer ties with South Korea, Russians are deeply pessimistic about the chances for a breakthrough with Japan, and Chinese demonize Japan to the degree that overtures to improve relations are rendered useless. These three cases point to the power of narratives about the history of another country in complicating any initiatives to reach a diplomatic agreement. As the world awaits the outcome of Putin-Abe talks, how Russians perceive Japanese history warrants scrutiny. Also, after the Abe-Park agreement in December 2015 raised the prospects of sustained improvement in Japan-ROK relations, how Japanese view the history of South Korea should draw attention. Likewise, after Xi and Abe broke the impasse in summitry between the two countries in late 2014, observers need to review how Chinese are discussing Japan’s history. Diplomacy occurs when one’s counterpart is prepared for pragmatic compromise. Our choices of one side’s view of the other do not imply that the other side’s view is not also a factor, but we point to egregious examples of how hopelessness matters.
Reading publications from China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea reveals a growing tendency to view bilateral relations through an historical lens. In the 1990s, hardly any looked to the past as the standard for judging the present-day ties between neighboring states. The main exceptions were South Korean images of Japan and Japanese images of Russia. These examples are still relevant, but the backlash from the other side is now acute; so we look at Japanese images of South Korea and Russian images of Japan.
The end of the Cold War appeared to liberate countries from ideological prisms and allow them to focus on pragmatic economic and security concerns. Over time, however, the Chinese and Russian narratives increasingly found a substitute for ideology in their historical rhetoric about Japan and even South Korea. Meanwhile, in Japan, writings on South Korea began to weigh history more heavily, as did South Korean writings on China. Historical frameworks matter; one must not assume that diplomacy alone can overcome what nations are now view as irreconcilable divisions.
The 70th anniversary issues, which stirred the countries of Northeast Asia, are past, but historical memory focused on security is no less divisive. Commemorations of victories and Abe’s statement captivated observers, in addition to the Japan-ROK agreement to end disputes over the “comfort women” imbroglio once and for all. Yet, the South China Sea dispute and the rejection of the international court ruling by China has revived debates over history—this time through the dichotomy of history versus law. The divide over how to deal with North Korea has also highlighted clashing historical narratives and security overtones. Negotiations between Japan and Russia, which have intensified, demonstrated how clashing understandings of the historical context matter. The frameworks used for analyzing developments in 2015 must yield a broader prism in order to fully grasp what is unfolding. Historical memory is at the core of divergent strategic rationales.
Three, wide-reaching frameworks can be detected in discussions about primary disputes in Northeast Asia. First, we find the dispute between modern, international law—which specifies rights and entitlements—and claims of historical precedents that prevail even if no legal document supported them. China is now playing the “history card” in the South and East China Seas, possibly extending to other areas. Second, we observe the continuing disputes over the results of WWII and treaties meant to resolve the claims that followed. This is at the core of Chinese and Russian critiques of Japan as well as South Korean critiques. Third, both premodern Chinese hegemony and post-Cold War US hegemony raise historical questions for some countries active in East Asia. Here, we set aside the usual focus on South Korean views of Japanese history and Japanese views of Russian history, to treat five other viewpoints.
Sino-South Korean Relations in the Context of Images of Each Other’s History
Relations between Beijing and Seoul for more than a decade epitomized how historical memory can be set aside in normalizing relations and refocusing on the future. While history remained a factor in other relations, this case appeared to be a striking exception. Even when the Koguryo controversy flared briefly, it took another decade to reveal the depth of clashing perceptions of history before a sharp downturn in relationship. The intensity of Chinese disparagement of South Korean history today trumps the limited South Korean concern about Chinese history, but one-sided historical distrust can easily turn into mutual distrust, as seen in this dyad.
Both sides of the Sino-South Korean relationship are examined in the articles that follow. Kirk Larsen starts us off with an assessment of how South Koreans place their country’s relationship with China in a historical framework. He finds that while leaders consciously put history second to geopolitics and economics, the public in South Korea, as in China, often does not. Gilbert Rozman then examines how Chinese sources cover South Korean history, updating his prior article in 2012 with an emphasis on more negative interpretations of South Korean history in 2015-16 and how they are connected to the recent souring of bilateral relations.
Larsen takes note of South Korean views of tributary relations as leading to sadae (much-resented dependency) contrary to China’s recollections that are much more positive and benign.. Unlike the Chinese sources, South Korean ones largely put the Korean War behind them once normalization opened a new track, but it is difficult to believe this traumatic event is not still present in the recesses of the mind, as is the Cold War period of Chinese support for North Korea. Above all, South Koreans perceive history as the basis for the Chinese sense of civilizational superiority, which translates into a hegemonic approach to peninsula affairs and the coming regional order.
Larsen traces the sharp divide over history to the dispute over the ancient kingdom of Koguryo. There are unmistakable ramifications for China’s pretending to be the successor state for at least a portion of the Korean population. Then came the shared historical memories of imperial Japan’s depredations during the first half of the 20th century, before Koreans awoke to Chinese insistence on using this as a cudgel for reshaping foreign relations in Northeast Asia. The fact that history had become so conspicuous in Sino-ROK relations on two occasions only a decade apart suggested that the Chinese were, in the minds of many Koreans, embarking on a course of historical revisionism that threatened to destroy the newfound amity between China and South Korea. South Korea, however, assiduously sought to defuse disagreements and prevent them from spilling over into other arenas.
Larsen notes that many in China fail to see how China’s policies can be seen as threatening to its neighbors due, in part, to the influence of two dominant strands in China’s interpretation of its own history. First portrays China as solely a victim of outsiders’ depredations, notably during the “Century of Humiliation.” Any action of the PRC today is viewed largely as righting past wrongs rather than muscle-flexing. Second is the longstanding idea that not only is China the natural hegemon in the East Asian region, but that this hegemony has been achieved through benign and welcomed influence of China’s civilization and culture, rather than force of arms. Such is its historical memory.
In the South China Sea disputes, Chinese are insistent that international law takes a back seat to their “historical” rights. In the East China Sea dispute and other themes related to Japan, the shadow of history never fails to resurface in the Chinses arguments. The Korean Peninsula is no exception to the logic that permeates Chinese writings on “surrounding areas.” In 2004, Koreans awakened to how Chinese publications were treating Koguryo, raising far-reaching, disturbing questions about the historical boundaries between China and Korea and the historical right of China to intervene in peninsular affairs. In 2010, prior to assuming China’s top post, Xi Jinping praised the “great” Korean War, making clear that the history of Sino-DPRK relations can be invoked in considering China’s role in current peninsular rivalries. The leadership was determined to prevent enthusiasm over the “Korean model”—a fascination with South Korea that could interfere with supporting its Northern counterpart and trigger human rights pressure or a “color revolution”—and the “Korean wave,” which is at odds with sinocentrism. Before security issues had risen to center stage, the Chinese people had found themselves in an Internet cultural/historical battle with the South Koreans.
As part of China’s tribute system, Korea was expected to express gratitude for its good fortune to be situated next to a benevolent neighbor, who seeks neither rapacious expansionism nor religious and other value-laden imperialism (pursued by the West). This came to matter more to Chinese as they glorified their own central role in a “harmonious world,” bringing history to the forefront in “neighboring relations” and articulating ideals for an exclusive Asian community. Ingratitude, therefore, lies at the core of their criticisms. Koreans should feel grateful for inheriting a superior culture and enjoying a harmonious order. South Koreans should also indebted to China for its role in the most important event in their history—removal of the Japanese occupation. In communist tradition, the anti-fascist struggle (now transposed into an anti-hegemonic, anti-militarist struggle) takes priority over other themes of bilateral relations. Koreans, it follows, should focus on this and be grateful to China’s assistance.
During the Cold War, Seoul, imbued with anti-communist thinking, was blamed more than Pyongyang for the failure to improve relations. The Cold War context serves as a blanket explanation for trouble on the peninsula without any effort to take notice of North Korean belligerence. The Korean Peninsula is treated, then and now, as an arena of competition between great powers—it has little capacity to affect its own destiny. China’s 2015 writings depicted South Korea as at a crossroads, highlighting two themes: 1) balancing Sino-Japanese relations in the context of a historical dispute that spills over to security and territorial issues; and 2) balancing Sino-US relations in the context of South Korea’s reliance on the United States, which shifted slightly under Roh but remained unable to find equilibrium. Total dependency on Washington is deemed a product of the Cold War era and inconsistent with Seoul’s national interests today. Park at first stood strong, but in 2015, she shifted to separate history and security, to emphasize cooperation with Japan, and to accept the US push for trilateral security. Abe’s August 14 statement did not meet Korean demands, but Park swallowed it for the future. Disappointment with how she is handling relations with Japan is treated as a matter of historical injustice by China.
Comments on Park’s betrayal on the history issue with Japan indicate that Beijing and Seoul had very different objectives in mind when they found common cause on this issue in 2013-15. For Xi, it was a matter not so much of responding to Abe’s extremism, but of making Japan a pariah and putting history at the center of thinking about foreign policy—an approach that also applies to Korean affairs. The entire history of the East and East versus West is at stake as South Koreans consider their place in the emerging world. Three historical judgments shape Chinese writings on South Korea: 1) the Cold War has not ended due to US mentality, China is the target along with Russia, and the Korean Peninsula is on the front lines with South Korea as a weak link for the United States; 2) the natural order in Asia is sinocentric, and nothing China has done suggests that it should not be trusted ; and 3) the history of national liberation and revolution proved that China was a victim itself as well as a support to other victims, and Koreans should still oppose Japan—intent on glorifying and reviving its role— in solidarity with China.
Chinese authors demand South Korea to have a correct view of history without clarifying the limits of what they may require. Mid-2010s saw a correct understanding of Japan’s history, not only its imperialist aggression (for which Chinese find little to fault South Koreans) but also its legacy for today’s resurgent militarism. Other themes include the South Korean view of China’s premodern history of sinocentrism and the tribute system; and the view of the Cold War, including the Korean War. Japan serves to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, as Beijing insists on linking visits to the Yasukuni Shrine to the passing of collective self-defense laws. The tribute system is associated with calls for exclusive Asian regionalism, forcing a choice between ties to Washington and Beijing. Finally, the Korean War cannot be divorced from Chinese thinking about how to manage North Korea, insisting on a regional framework that undermines the US-ROK alliance as if it is the principal barrier to final resolution of the nuclear crisis.
Japan’s Ties to China and Russia in the Context of Their Images of Japan’s History
Beijing and Moscow agree that how Tokyo deals with the legacy of 1945 is critical to their relations. Both find it hard to separate geopolitics and history: territorial disputes are viewed through an historical prism, and Japan’s military build-up and actions today are interpreted in light of its historical aggression. Thus, it is widely assumed that if Japanese leaders and the public were to reflect honestly about their country’s past, a different approach to the territorial and security issues would follow along with a much better bilateral relationship.
Jin Linbo argues that a dark picture of brutal militarism was so deeply rooted in Chinese memory that even under completely new circumstances marked by fast-growing positive elements—diplomatic rapprochement in 1972 as well as the learn-from-Japan movement in the 1970s and 1980s—that there was little transformation in China’s negative image of Japan. The negative wartime memory of a militaristic Japan became the predominant element forming China’s national image since then, forming the mainstream Chinese view of Japan in the first two decades of the 21st century. Jin omits any mention of government policy and censorship to ensure this result, presenting instead a narrative of China as a victim of militarism that could be targeted again by an unrepentant Japan. Without achieving real reconciliation on history issues, China and Japan will not be able to escape from their impasse, he argues.
Both Jin and Dmitry Strelstov observe that efforts to cast Japan as militaristic and drawn again to its wartime policies are contested. Jin points to one group arguing that there is not only an imminent danger but also some clear signs that indicate the revival of Japanese militarism, and another arguing that there is no room for militarism—the historical conditions for Japanese militarism no longer exist.
According to the former, there are five manifestations: 1) an extremely rightist regime has taken total control over Japan’s fate; 2) the social foundation for militarism has not collapsed with the historical spirit of Shinto and Bushido having permeated the hearts of contemporary Japanese; at the same time, China’s economic dynamism vis-à-vis Japan’s economic stagnation has provided the social conditions for neo-militarism; 3) the implementation of Japan’s new security law has broken the postwar international order; 4) Japanese media are right-leaning, and highly consistent with the intentions of the Japanese government; and 5) education within the SDF continues to prepare for militaristic forces to control the army. Similar arguments can be found in academic circles, Jin explains, adding that, partially because the general public’s views on Japan remain negative, the Chinese government continues to express its concern about the possible resurgence of Japanese militarism. Those who dissent are unable to discuss bilateral relations directly, being limited to make the case that the past and present are erroneously linked by the term “militarism,” which, in any event, has little consequence for China.
For the majority of the Chinese public, there seems to exist a direct linkage between reviving militarism and pursing anti-China policies given the historical context. It is assumed that historical thinking—not anything China is doing today—keeps arousing anti-China sentiment and policies pursued by Abe. Bilateral relations are deteriorating because of historical memories, we can surmise. Similarly, Russians are prone to see Japanese historical memories as the root cause of troubled bilateral relations, but they too are in the midst of an internal debate over how links between Japan’s past and present are being framed. Streltsov finds “mercantilists” and “realists” at odds with “conservatives” in drawing linkages between Japan’s past and present, but they are at a handicap because images of Japan have dwelt on symbols of the past, not details about ongoing developments. Neglect of thinking about Japan’s past and the history of this bilateral relationship make it difficult to interpret recent references to history in the remarks of Russian officials. Streltsov explains how deeply rooted such symbols remain.
History courses in Russian schools portray Japan as either a hostile adversary of Russia in the prewar period, or a satellite of the United States, Russia’s rival and geopolitical enemy. Japan was relegated to the periphery of the Soviet/Russian view of the world. Through the mid-1980s, Japan was seen as a country rife with class conflict and on the verge of turning against the unpopular hegemonic control of the United States; in the 1990s, it was seen as no longer enjoying a “miracle” and unsupportive of Russia’s revival. In 1992, it was targeted as unduly pressuring Russia; in 2002, it was dismissed for abandoning negotiations after a lot of fanfare; and in 2009-11, expectations fell to their nadir.
Streltsov takes special notice of the emotional stress associated with Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. There formed an image of Japanese as insidious, malicious, and vindictive “aliens.” Stalin appealed to the feeling of this hurt when he laid moral grounds for the USSR entry in the war with Japan. Russo-Japanese relations during the first half of the 20th century remained in the memory of the Soviet people as evidence of Japan’s aggressive course toward Russia/USSR, and over time this impression grew. The entry into war against Japan in 1945 is widely seen as the highest act of historical justice. After the end of the Cold War, Japan as the “defeated enemy” played an indispensable role in reestablishing Russia’s glamour, however illusionary, alleviating the pains of the superpower complex.
Generally speaking, Cold War mentality shaped an alarmist view of Japan as a “militarist” and even a “hostile” country belonging to the opposing political camp. Special attention was always paid to the “revisionist” ruling circles, which endeavored to change the pacifist constitution for a full-fledged military one. “Walking the path of militarization,” Japan, in Soviet mass media reports, was establishing a powerful army in defiance of the Constitution. On issues of bilateral relations involving WWII, media scrutiny was not welcome because the USSR considered them to be completely resolved by the Joint Declaration of 1956 and did not want to create a pretext for a new debate. A taboo was imposed even on the study of the historical background of the Soviet-Japanese territorial problem. One could speak only about the “unfounded territorial claims.”
After the end of the Cold War, the Russian political establishment inherited earlier stereotypes of Japan. The overwhelming majority of Russians, even those who received historical education in the post-Soviet period, adopted the Cold War postulates regarding Japan and Russo/Soviet-Japanese relations: the Soviet entry in the war against Japan was an act of ultimate historical justice leading to a speedy end of the war; Japan as a defeated country should bear this status with humility; the results of WWII, including the territorial acquisitions, are inviolable; and Japan is a subordinate country with “semi-colonial status,” which at best, does not control its own foreign policy, or, at worst, is a satellite of the United States and, hence, the geopolitical adversary of Russia. Russian public opinion related to Japan with increasing wariness before Abe’s 2013 overtures to Putin. The word Japan causes extremely unpleasant associations with the unlawful claims to the Southern Kuril Islands. Japan is perceived through this prism.
Conservatives rest their argument on Russia’s status as a guarantor state of the Yalta-Potsdam system and postulate the inviolability of the results of WWII. Japan as the defeated country should humbly adhere to this status, accepting it in repentance and humility. Abe’s national security policy aimed at revising the Constitution and an active military build-up is viewed as “revenge-seeking.” Conservatives treat Japan’s territorial claims with extreme negative emotions. Insistence on the inviolability of the outcome of World War II and of Japan’s status as the “defeated enemy” means rigid adherence to the line of “no territorial problem” in Moscow’s dialogue with Tokyo. Any compromise, even in the spirit of the 1956 Declaration, would imply revision of the results of WWII and lay a time bomb under the whole global system of postwar frontiers.
Realists show understanding of Japan’s natural urge to protect its national interests. They believe that Japan and Russia can find a compromise on the territorial issue based on the 1956 Declaration, the specifics of which should be based on understanding shared mutual threats. They claim that Japan holds an exceedingly pro-American stance, that it should choose a more independent position that would better comply with its national interests, and that it is already strong enough to get rid of close monitoring by Uncle Sam. Many Russian decision-makers tend to think that Japan supports the anti-Russian sanctions against its will, only out of solidarity with the West and under pressure from Washington. They argue that Japan may contribute to overcoming Moscow’s isolation. History can be overcome, in their thinking, but Japan must agree that all issues of WWII, including reparations and POWs, would be considered completely settled, and Article 6 of the Declaration of 1956 should be confirmed by the treaty. Therefore, the peace treaty is no more than euphemistic wording for a deal on “border demarcation”, in return for normalization of relations and provided no serious undermining of Russia’s historical narrative.
Japan-South Korean Relations in the Context of Japan’s Images of South Korean History
South Korean images of Japan’s history are well known and widely regarded as a barrier to improved bilateral relations. The Park administration backtracked on the December 28 agreement on “comfort women” as public opinion remained unpersuaded. This added to Japanese doubt about whether South Korea could overcome its critical perception of Japanese history. Korean history, including the history of South Korean ties to the outside world, is viewed through the lens of the country’s modern relations with Japan.
Whether looking at the ups and downs of diplomacy, the competition for the favor of the Obama administration, or the prospect of cooperation on regionalism, Japanese are preoccupied with how they interpret South Korean ties to their own country through an historical prism. They have little recognition for the immense contributions Korea made to their nation’s rapid development or the anger over the lack of Japanese remorse for the rapacious Hideyoshi invasions of Korea that left deep scars. Instead, Japanese publications on the history of South Korea narrow the focus on bilateral interactions to a degree that leave little room to relish mutual accomplishment. Even before the end of the Cold War—the moment at which history acquired more importance—negativity eclipsed appreciation.
The expression “history problems” continues to obfuscate the actual histories involved and to deflect attention from how history could be perceived in a more positive manner. Japanese society continues to contradict what Koreans see as the history during the first half of the twentieth century, and there is a pattern of treating Korean views of the past as a threat to Japanese national identity. In recent years, moreover, such views have bled into perceived threats to Japanese national security as well. As such, Japanese officials do not simply ignore them, but rather refute and demonize them as a direct challenge to a “normal Japan.” This is accompanied by criticism that Koreans are psychologically unbalanced and pathologically untrustworthy, coupled with writings on other periods in Korean history that illustrate such signs of imbalance. Exemplary are their reactions to Japan’s period of colonial rule.
Focus on the December 28, 2015 accord between Tokyo and Seoul—a new deal on the “comfort woman”— raises the possibility that Japanese could view Korean history in a new light. Both countries argue that with this agreement, “the issue is resolved finally and irreversibly,” giving hope that history would be reconceived.
With the Japanese public divided over historical memory and the Abe administration in no mood to build on the accord with Park, the mainstream perspective dwells on the failure of the South Korean public to see Japan in a more positive light. No renewed debate is taking place on why South Koreans are resentful and what Japan can do to turn this around. By pressing the public to rally behind claims of sovereignty over Takeshima (Dokdo) and sticking with Abe’s August 14 statement, which showed no compromise on matters affecting South Korean history, Japan remains adamant about views of history that will perpetuate wide gaps with South Korea.
In the case of the Chinese and Russian narratives treated here, there seems to be little sign of change, given the intensification of national identities hostile to the United States and its allies. The South Korean narrative on Chinese history has been restrained compared to the Chinese narrative on South Korea, and it is likely to have a backlash effect. In Japan, some may insist that its narrative on South Korea is also a backlash, but at its core, it is a revisionist approach to history that also leads to a South Korean backlash. In the near future, this mutual effect is most subject to outside influence, particularly as China’s demonization of both Japanese and South Korean history and US efforts to refocus history discussions in both allies continue. Academics and officials both can make a difference, as attention turns to transforming historical narratives as a means to improving relations.