East 56

When countries fail to agree on the past


They say history is written by the victors, but suppose no one wins?

The latest public figure to reopen the debate was South Korean president Park Geunhye, when she invited Japan, China and South Korea to consider jointly producing a shared history of the 20th Century. It was not a new proposal, but one never seriously attempted either.


Despite repeated attempts at collaboration between scholars, the three countries still lack a common vision of the Second World War and the decades prior to the conflict. William Faulkner’s famous saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” could easily have been written with the unhealed traumas of Beijing and Seoul in mind, with Tokyo in the role of the somewhat unrepentant aggressor.

In the rest of the world, there is a single commonly accepted version: imbued with militaristic nationalism, Japan occupied Korea and large swaths of China as well as much of Southeast Asia. Its propagandists described this as ‘liberating’ Asia from Western dominance. In reality, the basic idea was closer to Nazi Germany’s ‘Lebensraum’. By dragging the US into war with its attack on Pearl Harbour, Japan sowed the seeds of its own self-destruction, which culminated in 1945, when two of its cities were reduced to ashes by atomic bombs. The US occupied the country for the next seven years and imposed a pacifist constitution.

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