Divergent Memories
Opinion Leaders and the Asia-Pacific War
Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel Sneider



Historical Memory, National Identity, and International Relations

Lushun, a strategic seaport at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula in northeastern China, sits at the crossroads of the turbulent history of colonialism and war that washed repeatedly over this corner of the earth in the century that stretched from the mid-1800s to the end of World War II and its immediate aftermath. For most of this time it was known as Port Arthur, named after the Royal Navy officer who surveyed the harbor from a British gunboat during the Second Opium War in 1860. Today, monuments to the ensuing battles for control of this coveted spot appear all across the city.

A somber memorial sits at the site where, in 1894, Japanese forces massacred thousands of Chinese inhabitants in their seizure of the city from the forces of the decaying Qing dynasty in the first Sino-Japanese War. Imperial Japan gained control of Taiwan in that war, but Russia, Germany, and France forced return of the seized peninsula, which was placed under tsarist Russian rule and built up as the terminus for the vital South Manchurian Railway. A decade later, the Japanese returned in a surprise attack that began the Russo-Japanese War. Imperial Japan marked its victory by erecting an imposing stone tower on a hilltop with sweeping views of the port, which is still maintained to remind the Chinese of the rapacious invaders. By 1905, Japan had occupied the peninsula and the whole of nearby Korea, creating the foundation of a colonial empire that waged a fifteen-year campaign to conquer China, ending only in Imperial Japan’s defeat in 1945.

Visitors to the city are steered by the Chinese government to the site of a former Russian and Japanese prison, now restored as a museum detailing the depredations, from torture to forced labor, that the Japanese prison authorities inflicted on those who resisted their rule. Communist organizers are the most celebrated victims, but places of honor are also accorded to Korean independence activists. An engraved plaque marks the most famous prisoner, Ahn Jung-geun, who is celebrated by Koreans as a hero for assassinating the Japanese governor general of Korea, Ito Hirobumi, in 1909, but whom the Japanese still condemn today as a terrorist.

The historic tour ends at the Cemetery of Soviet Martyrs, a sprawling burial ground for both tsarist-era Russians and for the Soviet Red Army forces who “liberated” the area in 1945 from Imperial Japan and then stayed on for another decade. Rows of neatly maintained gravestones are still topped by red stars, some with carvings of jet fighters to memorialize Soviet pilots who died fighting in the Korean War in alliance with Communist Chinese forces.

The monuments that dot Port Arthur are a powerful statement that this wartime past is hardly forgotten. On the contrary, these memories of war and colonialism remain vivid and continue to affect the present and future of all the nations involved, shaping national identities and the relationships among the former combatants. The governments of these nations embrace the past as a tool to guide the political destinies of their peoples. The museums and monuments of Port Arthur, for example, constitute part of what the Chinese government calls “National Patriotism Education Demonstration Bases,” many of which were built or refurbished beginning in the mid-1990s as part of a concerted effort to shift the national identity of the Chinese from the discredited pursuit of Communism to the cause of building a great and powerful China celebrated for its resistance to the marauding European and Japanese imperialists.

As historians know all too well, history is not simply about recording past events—it is more importantly about how one understands the past.1 History writing inherently involves interpretation and even judgment, which, in turn, requires remembering certain things and forgetting others. In other words, collective memory becomes a crucial part of history, though history is not merely a matter of remembrance. Furthermore, historical memory is often contested, negotiated, and reshaped over time, as multiple actors, from the government to the media to ordinary people, become involved. Such contention and negotiation can occur between the state and civil society, between the left and right, and between neighboring countries, influencing domestic politics and international relations.

Indeed, contention over the wartime history of Northeast Asia remains surprisingly intense, with few signs of diminishing. Issues that arose out of the war brought relations between Japan and its neighbors in China and Korea to a near standstill in recent years, confounding those who hoped that the scars of war would fade with time. Korean leaders demanded that Japan offer fresh apologies and compensation to the handfuls of remaining Korean women, infamously known as “comfort women,” who had been forcibly dragooned into wartime brothels to service Japanese troops before they could meet. American policy makers were so concerned by the inability of the leaders of Japan and South Korea, the two principal security allies of the United States in the region, to even sit down with each other that in March 2014, President Barack Obama organized a trilateral meeting in Europe, focused on the common security threat of nuclear-armed North Korea. But at a closing press conference, the two Asian leaders, seated on either side of the president, could barely glance at each other.

The next month the president visited both countries, urging reconciliation. At his first stop, in Tokyo, the President politely skirted the war issues, hoping to quietly urge steps toward reconciliation. But Obama was visibly pained when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe concluded a joint press conference with an unrepentant defense of his decision the previous December, against American advice, to pay a ceremonial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. The memorial to Japan’s war dead controversially honors the wartime leaders of Japan who were condemned, many of them executed, by the United States and its allies for war crimes.

At his next stop, in Seoul, President Obama pointedly took up the war history issues. “With respect to the historical tensions between South Korea and Japan,” the president told a joint news conference, “I think that any of us who look back on the history of what happened to the comfort women here in South Korea, for example, have to recognize that this was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking. And they deserve to be heard; they deserve to be respected; and there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened.”2

The president offered the conviction, though it was more likely the hope, that Prime Minister Abe and, more certainly, the Japanese people are ready to honestly face the past. And he urged both peoples to resolve their differences in favor of pursuing their shared interests. “It is in the interest of both Japan and the Korean people to look forward as well as backwards and to find ways in which the heartache and the pain of the past can be resolved,” he said, in almost plaintive terms, “because, as has been said before, the interests today of the Korean and Japanese people so clearly converge.”3 Though this appeal largely fell on deaf ears, the president can be partially credited for a limited agreement reached by South Korea and Japan in December 2015 offering apology and compensation for the surviving Korean comfort women.4

Why is reconciliation in Northeast Asia so difficult, particularly when compared with the ability of Europe to largely overcome its wartime divisions? This book is based on the premise that the greatest obstacle to reconciliation in Northeast Asia is the existence of divided, and often conflicting, historical memories.5 From Japanese colonialism in Korea and atrocities in China to the American decision to drop atomic weapons on Japan, no nation is free from the charge that it has formed a less-than-complete view of the past. And all nations, even Japan, the architect of repeated aggression in this century, tend to blame others rather than fully confront the complexity of that past. Contention over history is so intense and emotionally engaging because it touches on the most sensitive issues of national identity.6 Even the territorial disputes between Japan and China, or between Japan and Korea, are closely related to history and national identity. Despite globalization and the rise of vibrant civil society, nationalism remains strong, and the government continues to exert a strong influence on history writing and education in all of these countries.

Rather than ignoring others’ views as “distorted” or trying to forge a common historical account of specific events, we believe that a more fruitful approach is to understand how historical memories have been formulated and contested in each country. By uncovering the existence of different historical memories both within and between societies—and by identifying key factors responsible for these differences—we hope to enable individuals to acquire more self-critical, self-reflective approaches to their histories and national identities and be more understanding of others.

To be sure, Northeast Asian nations have recently recognized the importance of coming to terms with their past and thus have pursued various means of reconciliation, ranging from apology to litigation to common history writing.7 However, as noted elsewhere, all of these tactics have reached clear, perhaps insurmountable, limitations, as illustrated by Japan’s “apology fatigue,” the rejection of all legal claims of Korean and Chinese victims by Japanese and American courts, and repeated failures to produce a shared view of history. There appears to be little hope for significant progress in these areas in the near future. In addition, while these countries are actively engaged in promoting their own historical memories and identities, they have lagged behind in understanding the other side’s story. There exists not only widespread disagreement in views of past events but also an imbalance in the importance each country gives to specific events and their relative importance in shaping their perception of the past. In this context, an important step toward historical reconciliation would be recognizing and understanding, rather than ignoring or overlooking, the nature and substance of the divided or contested historical memories that are present in the Asia-Pacific, even if one may not agree with the others’ views.

To this end, we at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University launched a multiyear project, Divided Memories and Reconciliation. The first phase of the project produced a comparative analysis of high-school textbooks of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States.8 The second phase examined the role of popular culture, and, in particular, dramatic film, in the formation of historical memory.9 The third phase compared East Asia with Western Europe with respect to how each region constructed historical memories of wartime past while also examining how those legacies continue to shape current histories.10 This book draws on these earlier phases of the project but goes beyond them to delve into the views of the elites that guide each nation and the roles that opinion leaders play in shaping memories of colonialism and war in Northeast Asia and the United States. We conducted detailed interviews with selected elite opinion leaders, from historians and journalists to government officials and civil-society activists, in China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States, who played a critical role in shaping wartime memory. We explored not only their personal histories but also their understanding of historical events, providing comparisons both within and between nations. These new materials and this novel approach offer a critical and fresh understanding of the nature of wartime memories in the Asia-Pacific region, providing sometimes startling comparisons of views of the same events through different sets of eyes.

Colonial and Wartime Memories in Northeast Asia and the United States

Memories of wartime events among the Chinese, Koreans, the Japanese, and Americans are fractured and contested. One such example is the ways that people in these societies remember the U.S. atomic attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While some facts, such as the number of human casualties, are well established, memories of the events and their ramifications are diverse and frequently at odds among the nations involved. For Americans, the use of atomic weaponry was a necessary means to end a destructive war with fewer casualties than otherwise, but the fact that Japan was the first and only victim of atomic strikes left room for Japan’s own victimhood. On the other hand, Koreans and the Chinese view Japan as an aggressor that was rightly retaliated against.

The contested nature of wartime memories surfaced again in August 2010, when U.S. Ambassador John Roos attended the annual ceremony at Hiroshima Memorial Park honoring those Japanese who had died in the bombings. While East Asian countries celebrated the sixty-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II, the commemoration took different forms in each nation. In Korea, groups of former “comfort women” and other victims of Japanese colonial rule rallied in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding compensation from the Japanese government. In China, hundreds gathered in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing to commemorate the victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. However, while the voices of these people were hardly acknowledged by the Japanese government, Japan held its annual ceremony to honor Japanese victims of the atomic bombings. President Obama’s decision to send a U.S. representative to the Hiroshima commemoration in 2010 seemed to reflect his efforts to realize a world without nuclear weapons. However, Ambassador Roos’s visit was perceived critically by China and Korea as an action that left the two “real” victim countries out of the equation.

While there was some hope among the Japanese after the ambassador’s visit that President Obama might also attend Hiroshima or Nagasaki memorials in the near future, this same prospect caused concerns for Koreans and the Chinese. Because Hiroshima is the very site that gave the Japanese a justification for their underlying theme of victim identity, for instance, many Chinese and Koreans are worried that a presidential visit would further impede Japan’s confrontation with authentic memory and history with its neighboring countries. For this reason, many opinion leaders in China argue that the Japanese prime minister should visit Nanjing to pay respects to the victims of Japanese aggression before the U.S. president makes his trip to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Bu Ping, a well-known historian who headed the Chinese delegation to the China-Japan Joint History Research Committee, says that “it is fine for the U.S. president to go [to Hiroshima or Nagasaki], but I think it is inappropriate for him to go there and apologize until Japan thoroughly apologizes [to the Chinese] for its own actions.”11 Likewise, South Koreans feel that the United States should not apologize to Japan but that Japan should first offer apologies, backed by sincere action, to its former colonies. Ambassador Roos’s visit to Hiroshima made it clear that Asian history disputes are not limited in their relevance to Asia alone and that the United States, too, must play a critical role in bringing about a solution, as it has been a part of the problem.

Diversity in Historical Memory

The “history question” in Northeast Asia, from its colonial roots to the clashes on the battlefield, has been a source of tension in the region and with the United States for decades. In 1982, for instance, Japanese history textbooks changed the term describing the 1937 Japanese military aggression against China from “invasion” to “advance,” which provoked fierce protests in China. This is considered the start of the so-called history question in Northeast Asia. A dominant view of Japanese colonialism in Korea stresses the exploitative and repressive nature of colonial rule, while the Japanese often point to some positive “economic” effects of their rule in Korea and Taiwan. Even Koreans and the Taiwanese disagree about the nature of Japanese colonialism and its legacy in their societies.12 While most Americans accept the view that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war with as few human casualties as possible, many Japanese question the motives underlying such an argument, and some even entertain the idea of racism. These are only a few examples of the differences and disputes that exist among Northeast Asian nations and the United States, which are well documented. They are actively presented, promoted, contested, and refuted through various means such as textbooks, films, museums, academic and popular writings, and the mass media.

However, what is often overlooked—but no less important—in discussing the divided nature of historical memories in the Asia-Pacific region is the difference in focus that shapes the formation of war memories in these countries. For the Chinese and Koreans, we all know, Japanese acts of aggression, like the Nanjing Massacre and forced labor and sexual slavery, are the most crucial in their memories of the war. On the other hand, actions related to the United States, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. bombings of Japanese cities (both atomic and firebombing), carry the most weight in shaping Japanese war memories. In particular, our Japanese interviewees unanimously demonstrated that the American firebombings of Japanese cities constitute a key element in their war memories. China and Korea play a role, but only a secondary one compared to that of the United States. Ironically, the atomic bombings of Japanese cities and their aftermath are omitted from South Korean history textbooks, and most Koreans do not know that many Koreans suffered in the bombings, too. In sum, China and Korea are not as significant to Japanese war memories as is the United States, while Japan figures prominently in the war memories of Koreans and the Chinese. Likewise, Japan, more so than China or Korea, is a central player in American memory formation of the Asia-Pacific War. This imbalance in focus helps to explain much of the complexity of the formation of historical memory and reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, the focus on the United States in Japanese war-memory formation both reflects and explains Japan’s victim identity and reluctance to fully engage Asian neighbors regarding colonial aggression and issues of wartime atrocities. Unlike Germany, postwar Japan witnessed the development of a mythology of victimhood in which many innocent civilians were sacrificed as a result of the massive and destructive U.S. bombings of cities. The Japanese charge that the United States did not address its own “crimes against humanity.” Historical memory based on victimhood served to pardon the Japanese of their guilt, foster an already ubiquitous sense of self-pity, and impede the search for historical truth. Subsequently, victim consciousness provided fertile soil for the growth of a postwar neonationalism that denied Japan’s responsibility for wartime atrocities.

The notion of American guilt and Japanese victimhood, with much silence on the topic of Japanese aggression against its Asian neighbors, is a prevalent theme in the exhibits of the Yushukan museum that is part of the Yasukuni Shrine complex in Tokyo. Even historical museums memorializing nuclear victims present a view that questions America’s justification for the bombings and deliberately avoids the question of Japan’s responsibility for the war. It is in this context that Kiyoteru Tsutsui’s content analysis of editorials published in three major Japanese newspapers from 1945 to 2000 found that “evasion” has been the most dominant approach in the Japanese media’s discourse on the war.13 The evasion frame partially accepts guilt but evades the trauma of perpetration by shifting focus to one’s own victim consciousness. Within this frame, the Japanese underline the suffering of their own citizens during the Asia-Pacific War, while ignoring Asian victims of Japanese aggression.

In recent years, the Japanese have been calling for a U.S. presidential visit to the sites of the nuclear attacks in order to remove the “historical thorn” that exists between the two allies. The Japanese journalist Hisayoshi Ina goes so far as to suggest that “a visit to Hiroshima by the U.S. president, if realized, will be implanted deeper in history than Kennedy’s Berlin speech.”14 However, the Japanese are reluctant to support a similar visit by the Japanese prime minister to Nanjing to pay tribute to the victims of the 1937 massacre. Most Japanese who support a U.S. presidential visit seem to see its merit mainly in terms of reconciling historical issues between the United States and Japan rather than as part of a broader effort toward regional reconciliation. Such an attitude once again reflects the nature of Japanese war memories formed primarily vis-à-vis the United States, not Asian neighbors. However, Koreans and the Chinese, who view the atomic strikes as having been a necessary means of ending the war, and who consider Japanese wartime atrocities to have been far worse, wonder why a U.S. president would make a symbolic visit to the bombing sites when Japanese leaders have not done their part.

This imbalance in memory formation creates perception gaps, hindering mutual understanding and historical reconciliation. Consequently, an important step toward reconciliation is to identify and understand the key factors that influence the formation of historical memory in each nation and to recognize the different weight of these factors. Koreans and the Chinese, for example, need to understand how and why the victim identity of conservative Japanese elites (unlike their German counterparts) came about and how it has posed a chief obstacle to Japan’s reconciliation with its Asian neighbors. Likewise, Japan must become cognizant of just how central the historical legacy of its aggression has been in shaping the collective identities of Koreans and the Chinese. For instance, in Japanese history textbooks, only 4 percent of the coverage of Japan’s modern history (1868 to 1945) is devoted to Korea; the United States is the main player. In contrast, in Korean history textbooks, Japan occupies almost one quarter of the coverage of modern history (late 1800s to 1945). In other words, Japan figures far more prominently in the historical memory and identity of Koreans and the Chinese than do Korea and China in those of Japan. Once again, this imbalance in focus accounts for much of the divided and fractured nature of wartime memories that exist in the Asia-Pacific region.

Historical memory is not a constant; it is subject to internal contention and outside influence. A superficial examination might give an impression that there is only a single historical memory for each country in Northeast Asia. To be sure, each country is obsessed with national history, has emphasized a single historical memory, and has produced powerful nationalist “master narratives.” In addition, the governments have been deeply involved in fashioning collective memory and national identity through history education. In both Japan and South Korea, the ministries of education require all textbooks to undergo a strict screening process.15 In China, the education ministry has a more direct role in textbook writing, as history textbooks must “accord with fundamental policies of the government.”16 Although there is more flexibility in the United States, most history textbooks aim to teach youth a specific accepted master narrative as part of defining the nation’s collective identity, and thus history education plays a powerful role in shaping collective memory and national identity.

There are certainly issues or topics of (near) consensus on the national level. For instance, there is hardly any dissenting view of the Nanjing Massacre among the Chinese. Likewise, few Koreans would dispute the forced and inhumane nature of the sexual slavery of so-called comfort women. Many Japanese feel victimized by the American firebombings and atomic bombings, while most Americans see these bombings as having been necessary measures, if tragic in human terms. These widely held positions are well incorporated into the master narratives of wartime memories in these nations.

Nonetheless, there is internal diversity and contention regarding historical memory in each nation of the Asia-Pacific region. In both Japan and South Korea, there are intense debates over war memories between progressives and conservatives. In Japan, progressive scholars and intellectuals have embraced wartime responsibility as embodied in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly know as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, while conservative counterparts have stressed Japanese victimhood. In Korea, too, some scholars and experts acknowledge the oppressive but modernizing effect of Japanese rule, while the prominent view still emphasizes the exploitative nature of colonialism.

Even in authoritarian China, diverging views exist on whether the Japanese invasion of China was initiated by a grand plan or by a series of random events, such as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, or whether the number of Chinese killed in the Nanjing Massacre was actually three hundred thousand (the figure officially recognized by the Chinese government). Li Datong of China Youth Daily offers a dissenting view: he says that the number could not be three hundred thousand, since that was the total population of Nanjing at the time, and that a large number of casualties were Kuomintang (KMT) troops and not Nanjing residents.17 In Japan, opinion leaders often disagree about whether the attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of aggression or an essentially defensive move, whereas in Korea, opinion leaders recall differently whether the mobilization of laborers and soldiers was done by force or by deception, with victims misled by promises of high income.

Not surprisingly, there exists greater diversity of historical views in democratic nations such as Japan than in authoritarian states like China. In a politically liberal environment, issues of historical injustice can no longer be monopolized or controlled by the government. Instead, civil society and transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) become increasingly involved in the issues of historical injustice and reconciliation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, one finds a good deal of memory diversity among the Japanese, perhaps more so than in Korea or China. This diversity largely owes its existence to civic groups and liberal academics who dispute the master narratives of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party–led governments. In Korea, too, democratization since the late 1980s has led more people to come to the realization that Koreans were not merely victims but also, at times, perpetrators. Apart from their suppression of Korean civilians, Korean troops committed the same sorts of atrocities against innocent Vietnamese that Americans were accused of carrying out against Koreans during the Korean War. Even in China, where the authoritarian state holds the upper hand in the production of historical memory, “history activists” have been key players in dealing with the history question.18

In addition to democratization and other forms of political “opening,” a growing global attention to ethnic or national identity, human rights, and historical injustice has broadened and diversified views of and approaches to the history question. In the past, for instance, Koreans regarded the issue of comfort women primarily from a strictly anti-Japanese nationalist standpoint. More recently, there has been an increased tendency to approach it from a broader feminist or human-rights-centered perspective. Similarly, heightened regional interactions have encouraged the exchange of ideas and collaboration among NGOs on contested historical issues. Increasing numbers of civic activist groups, especially in Japan and South Korea, have joined together in history-redress movements, including data and testimony collection, documentary filmmaking, and public history propaganda work. It seems that democratization, globalization, and regionalism will continue to contribute to an enhancement of diversity in historical memory beyond state-sanctioned master narratives, though nationalist sentiments remain strong in Northeast Asia.

Memory Formation and Transformation

An important consequence of internal contention and outside influence is memory transformation. History memory is not fixed—it changes over time. It occurs not only in democratic countries such as the United States but also in authoritarian ones such as China. In addition, we observe memory transformation in aggressor nations (e.g., Japan) as well as victim nations (China and Korea).

Scholars of memory formation and transformation generally agree that national memory develops and takes shape over the course of several stages. In the case of China, Japan, and Korea, these stages have taken somewhat different paths but have led to common underlying themes. For almost four decades after the end of the war in Asia, the involved countries struggled to recover from the trauma and the aftermath of the war, both economically and psychologically. In Japan, early efforts to address war responsibility led by progressives gave way to conservative nationalist arguments that evaded Japanese guilt for aggression and instead stressed their victim consciousness. In China and Korea, remembering the war history was secondary to other urgent issues, such as the economy and politics, and was considered a “luxury.” The South Korean academic-turned-cartoonist Yi Won Bok recalls the period: “During that time, the problem was all about survival. Nobody was interested in history.”19 This period of long silence was further reinforced by the Chinese and Korean governments, as they were eager to receive economic assistance from Japan in order to gain footholds for their national development. All in all, for each of the three countries, there existed an urge to forget the humiliating past and trauma and redefine what it meant to be Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. It was not until the early 1980s that historical disputes among the three countries surfaced.

Although the Japanese themselves had been debating the content of their textbooks since the immediate aftermath of the war, this did not become an international issue until the Japanese media reported, in 1982, the attempt to downplay the wording of textbook references to the start of the war with China. Matsuno Takayasu, the Japanese minister of national land, claimed, “There was no ‘invasion’ when the war started, so it is time to eliminate it from the textbooks.” Such high officials’ denial of Japan’s wartime crimes immediately provoked Chinese resentment. The media began to focus on reporting witnesses’ bitter personal memories of Japan’s atrocities and appealed to the Chinese people to “never forget that the war caused tremendous disasters by Japanese aggressors.” Meanwhile, historians and scholars in China held various symposiums to commemorate the thirty-seventh anniversary of the triumph of the Chinese people’s resistance against Japan. Finally, in August 1982, a special exhibition titled Historical Exhibits of the Nanjing Massacre Committed by Japanese Aggression was opened in the Museum of Nanjing. This was the first public exhibit to show Japan’s wartime crimes in that city.20 The commemoration of the anniversary of the end of the war that year was bathed in nationalist rhetoric. In 1985, the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre and the Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by Japanese Army Unit 731 opened primarily to expose Japan’s wartime crimes and brutality, rather than to honor victims.

In Korea, too, distorted descriptions of Japanese colonial rule and the repeated denial of wartime crimes by Japanese officials prompted strong reactions on the national level. The Korean government demanded the “correction” of nineteen items in Japanese history textbooks. In addition, Korean activists began criticizing the authoritarian Park Chung Hee regime that put aside history issues when Korea normalized relations with Japan in 1965 and protested Japanese history textbooks’ descriptions of colonial rule in Korea. War victims, including former comfort women in Korea, started to speak out about their experiences, and some even filed belated lawsuits against the Japanese government. The tales of comfort women became powerful symbols of the inhumane aggression of Japan and Korean victimization. Disputes over history textbooks and over the sovereignty of a small group of islets—Dokdo to the Koreans and Takeshima to the Japanese—began to shape bilateral relations between two key allies of the United States.

In Japan, progressives were the most active in early attempts to promote a Japanese war memory that accepted wartime responsibility. However, as the Cold War progressed, their voices were drowned out by a more conservative perspective that advocated victim identity, leading to historical amnesia. Japanese conservatives advanced the view that their country had acted in self-defense against foreign aggressors and that Japan’s creation of a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” had been aimed at “liberating” Asia from white imperialists.21 They focused on commemorating the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their narrative of self-victimization further reinforced Japanese war amnesia. Japanese high officials began to deny past wrongdoings, even going so far as to remove descriptions of Japan’s wartime crimes from national textbooks on the grounds that “otherwise our younger generations will not respect our ancestry, as they would think that they had done something really bad in history.”22 Even Minister of Justice Nagano Shigeto once proclaimed that Japan’s aim in World War II was to “liberate East Asia.”23

The United States and Northeast Asia

The United States is integral to the history question in Northeast Asia. Besides fighting against Japan in World War II, the United States, the principal victor in the war, constructed the settlement that formed the foundation of the post-1945 regional order in East Asia. It also played a critical role in shaping the ways in which the Japanese would remember the war years and address reconciliation issues with their Asian neighbors. The United States made fateful decisions in the treatment of Japanese war crimes, from the decision to put the issue of the Emperor’s responsibility aside to the rehabilitation of nationalist conservatives to counter Japan’s leftward drift. The unresolved territorial issues that irritate Japan’s relations with its neighbors are all the result of American decisions in postwar settlement. The normalization treaty between Japan and the Republic of Korea was brokered by Washington, which pressed the Koreans to put aside compensation issues in response to Japanese resistance. In short, the United States is the single most important foreign actor in creating a postwar regional order and shaping Japanese war memories and approaches to historical reconciliation with the country’s neighbors.

In the past, the United States has taken the position that historical disputes in Northeast Asia are matters to be settled among Asians and that, therefore, the United States should not be involved. Even when historical disputes reemerged at the turn of twenty-first century, President George W. Bush, referring to anti-Japanese protests in China and South Korea, urged Asian nations to put their past behind them “to overcome the tension standing in the way of . . . an optimistic future,” suggesting that it is possible, though difficult, to forget the past.24 However, as tensions intensified in recent years over historical and territorial disputes between key allies of the United States, American officials have expressed concerns. For example, Kurt Campbell, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during President Obama’s first term, proclaimed the tensions “as the biggest strategic challenge to American interests in Asia.”25

Simply put, the United States is not an outsider or observer to the history question in Northeast Asia but an integral part of it. It can no longer ignore growing tensions over history in the region as matters that involve only Asians. Therefore, it is only fitting to include the United States as part of this project, and the chapters to follow in this book demonstrate the necessity of including the United States in the study of history wars in Northeast Asia.

Opinion Leaders and Historical Memory

In this book, we focus on opinion leaders’ views with regard to wartime memories in China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. These men and women often play a critical role in shaping the formation of historical memory as historians and writers, filmmakers, or activists. But, often, little is known about how they formed their own memories of the wartime past and how they understand the series of events that led to war.

Individuals directly involved in the tragic events of colonialism and war have written memoirs, offering firsthand stories, but wartime memories are largely socially and collectively constructed.26 As many experts point out, the politics of memory is a process of negotiation between interested parties, such as victims and their families, veterans’ organizations, and NGOs, which is often brokered by the government.27 Besides formal history education, war commemoration through popular media such as films and museums render vivid narratives widely available to those who did not experience wartime events themselves. What Alison Landsberg refers to as “prosthetic memories” are “privately felt public memories that develop after an encounter with a mass cultural representation of the past, when new images and ideas come into contact with a person’s own archive of experience.”28 This way, she writes, “it becomes possible for a person to acquire memories that are not his or her ‘natural’ or biological inheritance.”29 Thus, memory formation is a complex process that involves multiple actors and institutions, and existing scholarship has sought to capture this process through the analysis of history textbooks, films, museums, novels, public opinion polls, and so on.30

However, few attempts have been made to examine the role of opinion leaders who were not directly involved in the war but whose thoughts and beliefs play a distinctive part in the formation of collective or social memories of the nation. As with education and popular culture, how elites in politics, media, academia, and business view the past is crucial to forming wartime memory in a nation. In addition, there are few works that take an explicitly comparative approach, especially one that includes the United States. What has been missing in studies of Asia-Pacific War memories is discussion of the role of the United States, doubtless a main player in the war and its aftermath, in the resolution of contested history issues.

To fill this research gap, our book examines the views of opinion leaders in each of these three Asian nations and the United States—including historians, public intellectuals, activists, former government officials, creators of television and film, media figures, and museum directors—who have influenced wartime memory. We compiled our list of interview subjects in collaboration with scholars of those countries, trying to assemble a diversity of voices with regard to age, social roles, and, where possible, gender. In our in-depth interviews, all interviewees were asked the same set of questions about their understanding of the wartime period from 1931 to 1951. Each talked at length about his or her personal history and how the direct experience of war and its aftermath, including postwar education and family considerations, shaped his or her wartime memories. The interviews have yielded a remarkable cross-national study of key issues in wartime memory formation in the Asia-Pacific, allowing us to compare how elites in China, Japan, Korea, and the United States view events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nanjing Massacre, the atomic bombings of Japan, and the experience of Japanese colonial rule in Asia.

While we cannot claim that our interviewees constitute a representative sample of opinion leaders in each country, what emerges from these interviews is a rich tapestry of the wartime past that offers deep insight into how elites understand that past and have acted to guide their nations’ memories of those events. Often moving and deeply personal, tales of the interviewees provide a fascinating window into how the wartime period was experienced and has been remembered. Combined with research into existing work in all of the countries under study and visits to museums and other key sites that underpin the narrative of the wartime past, these interviews create a unique comparative understanding of the divided nature of wartime memories in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is our hope that greater mutual understanding will lead to reconciliation. One of our Chinese interviewees, Bu Ping, revealed during his interview that it was possible to change one’s attitude toward, and prejudice against, the opposite side—in this case the Japanese. He acknowledges,

After my first visit to Japan in 1986, I really disliked the Japanese. They were always saying they were the victims. They did not say anything about the victims of their weapons in China. . . . When I went to Japan for the second time in 1992, I had already got to know many Japanese scholars, mostly in China. I discovered that a lot of Japanese people were nothing like the Japanese we had always imagined. I also learned about things that Chinese people didn’t know. For example, a great number of Japanese scholars were researching the issue of chemical weapons used during the war [with China], and they gave us a lot of materials. I was shocked when I learned that some Japanese people vehemently opposed war and that some soldiers had even established antiwar organizations after returning to Japan after the war.31

An introspective effort such as this one has the potential to lay the foundation for a greater mutual understanding of historical memory and eventual historical reconciliation in the region, and we hope that this book will contribute to the attainment of this goal.

Structure of the Book

This book takes the reader first into how each nation constructs its national memory, using site visits to museums, textbooks, films, and other windows into an often-contested landscape of memory. Out of our interviews, we tell you the stories of five people in each country, selected for their importance in illustrating specific issues and for the often-compelling stories that these individuals tell about the colonial and wartime past and their relationships to those historical memories.

We then draw on our interviews and other research to compare across the four countries the historical memories of five key issues in the wartime period. We begin with the highly sensitive issue of Japanese colonial rule and the problem of forced labor, including that of the comfort women. We follow this, chronologically, with the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s, including the issue of Japanese war crimes in China, and the war in the Pacific, from the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to the long struggle to Allied victory. We conclude with a comparative examination of the still highly sensitive issues surrounding the American decision to use atomic weapons against Japan and, finally, the postwar settlement, largely constructed by the United States, and whether justice was done.

The book concludes with what we hope is a fruitful discussion of the process of historical reconciliation. In that final chapter, we are most concerned with past efforts at reconciliation and what might be done, in very practical terms, to finally heal the wounds of war in Northeast Asia.


1. For further discussion of history and memory, see Sheila Jager and Rana Mitter, eds., Ruptured Histories: War, Memory, and the Post–Cold War in Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Kirk Denton, Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Post-Socialist China (Manoa: University of Hawaii Press, 2014).

2. White House, “Press Conference with President Obama and President Park of the Republic of Korea,” April 25, 2014,

3. Ibid.

4. Daniel Sneider, “Behind the Comfort Women Agreement,” Tokyo Business Today, January 10, 2016,

5. See also the discussion in Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

6. For further discussion of national identity, see Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder, Japan–South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

7. See Gi-Wook Shin, “Historical Reconciliation in Northeast Asia: Past Efforts, Future Steps, and the U.S. Role,” in Confronting Memories of World War II: European and Asian Legacies, ed. Daniel Chirot, Gi-Wook Shin, and Daniel Sneider (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014), 157–185.

8. See Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel Sneider, eds., History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia: Divided Memories (London: Routledge, 2011).

9. See Michael Berry and Chiho Sawada, eds., Divided Lenses: Screen Memories of War in East Asia (Manoa: University of Hawaii Press, 2016).

10. See Daniel Chirot, Gi-Wook Shin, and Daniel Sneider, eds., Confronting Memories of World War II: European and Asian Legacies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).

11. Bu Ping, interview by the authors, Beijing, China, April 19, 2010.

12. See Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, “One Colonialism, Two Memories: Representing Japanese Colonialism in Taiwan and South Korea,” in Shin and Sneider, History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia, 173–190.

13. Kiyoteru Tsutsui, “The Trajectory of Perpetrators’ Trauma: Mnemonic Politics Around the Asia-Pacific War in Japan,” Social Forces 87, no. 3 (2009): 1389–1422.

14. Hisayoshi Ina, “A Historical Thorn Between Japan and United States,” Nikkei, April 12, 2009, p. 2.

15. Peter Duus, “War Stories,” in Shin and Sneider, History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia, 101.

16. Caroline Rose, “Changing Views of the Anti-Japanese War in Chinese High School History Textbooks,” in Imagining Japan in Post-war East Asia: Identity Politics, Schooling and Popular Culture, ed. Paul Morris, Naoko Shimazu, and Edward Vickers (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013), 131.

17. Li Datong, interview by the authors, Beijing, China, April 24, 2010.

18. James Reilly, “China’s History Activists and the War of Resistance Against Japan: History in the Making,” Asian Survey 44, no. 2 (2004): 276–294.

19. Yi Won Bok, interview by the authors, Seoul, South Korea, December 16, 2009.

20. Xiaohua Ma, “Constructing a National Memory of War: War Museums in China, Japan, and the United States,” in The Unpredictability of the Past: Memories of the Asia-Pacific War in U.S.–East Asian Relations, ed. Marc Gallicchio (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 157–158.

21. Jasper Heinzen, “‘Memory Wars’: The Manipulation of History in the Context of Sino-Japanese Relation,” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 6, no. 2 (2004): 149.

22. Ma, “Constructing a National Memory of War,” 157.

23. Nagano Shigeto, interview, Mainichi Shimbun, May 4, 1994.

24. Lee Dong-min, “Bush Urges Asia to Forget Bitter Past,” Yonhap News, November 9, 2005,

25. Richard McGregor and Simon Mundy, “Ill Will Between Japan and South Korea a Strategic Problem for US,” Financial Times, November 21, 2013,

26. See Kazuko Kuramoto, Manchurian Legacy: Memoirs of a Japanese Colonist (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999); and Kodo Yasuyama, Collection of Memoirs of the Atomic Bombardment of Nagasaki, 1945–55 (Nagasaki, Japan: Nagasaki Association for Hibakusha’s Medical Care, 2005). Even these personal memoirs carry the risk that one’s select experiences have been influenced by social memory.

27. T. G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, and Michael Roper, eds., The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration (London: Routledge, 2000).

28. Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 19.

29. Ibid., 22.

30. Shin and Sneider, History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia.

31. Bu, interview by the authors.