Men dressed as Japanese imperial army soldiers march at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on August 15, 2012.
Men dressed as Japanese imperial army soldiers march at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on August 15, 2012, the 67th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
Issei Kato / Courtesy Reuters

From territorial disputes in the East China Sea to heated propaganda wars across the region, peace in northeast Asia seems increasingly tenuous. At the heart of rising tensions are unresolved historical issues related to World War II, which drive a wedge between the United States’ two main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, and fuel a revived rivalry between Japan and China. As the main victor in World War II, the United States has some responsibility for these disputes. It constructed the postwar regional order and has been largely content since then to view the matter as settled, even though issues of territory, compensation, and historical justice were left unresolved. During the Cold War, when the region’s main players were cut off from each other, the United States’ approach worked well. But as the region democratizes and grows increasingly integrated, long-buried issues are coming to the surface. As U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Japan and South Korea this month, it is time for the United States to tackle wartime history in Asia head on.

American officials were confronted by the uncomfortable realities of wartime issues last year, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, without warning, made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including some who had been convicted and executed as Class-A war criminals. The Japanese leader certainly understood that his decision would irk China and South Korea, which see such visits as signals of Tokyo’s embrace of an unapologetic view of Japan’s wartime aggression. What was even more troubling was that the visit came only a few weeks after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden apparently received assurances from Abe that Tokyo would avoid any such provocations. Biden subsequently encouraged South Korean President Park Geun-hye to sit down with the Japanese leader, although Park questioned whether he could be trusted to hold his historical revisionism in check -- a concern that was clearly justified.

Japan and South Korea have made repeated efforts over the past two decades to resolve their wartime history issues, but progress has always proved short-lived. South Korean officials now openly plead for the United States to step in. That would be anathema to Japan, which fears being isolated. Obama managed to convene a brief meeting of the Japanese and South Korean leaders recently at the nuclear safety summit in Europe, but the agenda focused solely on North Korea. For its part, the United States simply urges restraint and dialogue, consistently refusing to intervene directly into disputes over the wartime past. American diplomats understandably argue that the subject is a minefield and that any U.S. involvement will be viewed with suspicion in China, Japan, and South Korea alike.

Even so, China’s bid for regional domination makes it nearly impossible for the United States to continue to stay out of the fray; Beijing has already started to position itself as sympathetic to South Korean fears about Japan and has embarked on a global propaganda campaign against Japanese “militarism,” pointing with undisguised glee at any evidence of Japanese nostalgia for its wartime past.  By taking a leading role in dealing with the wartime past, the United States could make it difficult for Beijing to use it for political gain.

The oft-stated notion that the United States has no responsibility for history issues is a convenient myth. The United States made several key decisions right after the war that laid the groundwork for the current dispute. These range from its decision to put aside the issue of the emperor’s responsibility to its efforts to rehabilitate nationalist conservatives -- including Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, the wartime minister in charge of Japan’s military industry -- to counter Japan’s leftward drift, all of which undermined efforts within Japan to make a clear break with the past. Meanwhile, the territorial issues that plague Japan’s relations with its neighbors -- from the dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to the Kurile islands disputes with Russia -- are all results of American decisions in the postwar settlement. The 1965 normalization treaty between Japan and Korea, which was brokered by Washington, pressed the Koreans to put compensation for Japanese colonial rule and for forced mobilizations of Koreans for the war effort aside after Japan balked. Such decisions made sense in the context of the Cold War because of the imperatives of the struggle against the Soviet and Chinese Communists. But they don’t anymore, and it is incumbent on the United States to help the region reconcile its past once and for all.

An in-depth look at the formation of wartime historical memory, conducted as part of our Divided Memories and Reconciliation project, shows that narratives about the past cannot and will not be easily changed. Indeed, the younger generations, which have no memory of the horrors of war, hold on to the stories even tighter. Still, there are some ways to at least reduce tensions over the wartime past.

The most urgent issue is compensation for individual victims of the system of forced labor that Japan used during the war, including the women from across Asia whom it coerced into sexual servitude. The government of Japan, with the support of the United States, has long insisted that the issue of compensation was settled by the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and by subsequent agreements normalizing relations with China and South Korea. But some legal scholars, including in Japan, argue that the settlement between states does not bar individuals from seeking compensation. In fact, California enacted legislation in 1999 that allowed victims of the Holocaust and of the German and Japanese forced-labor systems to seek such redress from private corporations that exploited them, but the law was overturned.

Compensation for the so-called comfort women, who were forced to serve in Japanese military brothels, is an urgent issue, but it would be better for Japan to finally deal with the broader problem of forced labor. It could follow the model of the German Fund for the Future, or, as it is formally known, the foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future, which was formed in 2000. The 5.2 billion euro ($7.15 billion) fund is jointly maintained by the German government and the German private corporations that used forced labor during the war. In cooperation with international partner organizations, it has compensated more than 1.66 million survivors in almost 100 countries. It also offers research and education programs.

Of course, the momentum for such an initiative must come from Japan and the Japanese parliament, as the German initiative did in Germany. But the process can be encouraged and aided by the United States, which was directly involved alongside the German government in designing the fund and in negotiating its terms with Poles, Czechs, Jewish groups, and others seeking compensation. Unlike in the case of Japan, the U.S. government did not actively oppose suits filed in U.S. courts against German firms seeking compensation. Today, the United States could formally change its legal interpretation of the San Francisco Treaty to allow individuals to seek compensation, including from private corporations, and ask the involved nations to assure Japan that they fully accept the new fund as a final settlement of all issues of compensation.

Public apologies must come next. Many in Japan believe that their country has already offered apologies, but that the victims, particularly in China and South Korea, simply refuse to accept them, preferring instead to keep the fires of the war alive. Official Japanese apologies, however, are constantly undermined by some Japanese political leaders’ outright denial of wartime responsibility. And Tokyo has made little effort to reach out to the broader public with public gestures of real contrition. Compare, for example, Japanese Socialist Prime Minister Murayama’s limited statement on the war in 1995, when a Japanese premier formally and specifically apologized, for the first time, for Japanese “aggression and colonial rule,” to German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s decision to kneel in apology before the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising during a visit to Poland in 1970. A photo of that moment lingers on as an expression of German contrition, but nothing comparable exists from Japan. Worse, Japanese conservatives continue to assail the Murayama statement.

It is not hard to imagine how powerful it would be if a Japanese prime minister bowed his head at the museum commemorating the Nanjing massacre or met the surviving Korean comfort women in Seoul. The cases of Germany and Japan are by no means completely parallel, not least in the distinctive nature of the Holocaust, but also in the way the Cold War impelled Germany to reconcile with its wartime foes, such as France and Britain, whereas as the Cold War separated Japan from its principal Asian victim, China. But Japan can take some lessons from Germany’s ongoing willingness to embrace the need for apology and self-examination. Here, Washington has the opportunity to offer its own leadership in confronting the United States’ wartime past; it is time for an American president to throw aside political caution and go to Hiroshima or Nagasaki to offer his or her own reflections on the horrible human costs of the decision to drop atomic weapons on Japan. The United States would not only set an example -- without doing so, it would be hard to justify American intervention on wartime history issues.

Finally, the education of the next generation must not be overlooked. Again, Europe provides a useful example. Germany and France, through a long process of discussion and exchange, created a joint textbook commission whose work on the history of World War II is used in classrooms today. The two countries also created a youth office to sponsor mass exchanges, with some eight million participating in programs over the last half century. These were decisions that the Germans made on their own, in the context of the need to create postwar European community.

Japan has formed a history commission with China and with South Korea. These two efforts failed to achieve their goal of creating a common history because they could not entirely bridge their differences over the past. But they did establish the groundwork for future commissions and create extensive networks of historians with experience in such exchanges. Our own comparative study of high school history textbooks in Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and the United States yielded a curriculum unit that could be used in all those countries. The involvement of American scholars and educators in history dialogues among China, Japan, and South Korea could aid this effort.


The United States might worry that its efforts in the region won’t be effective, or that the United States will become the next target of all the countries in the region. To soothe these fears, it is worth looking back to the United States’ role in promoting reconciliation during the Northern Ireland peace process. The negotiation leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell and backed by the White House in close consultation with the British and Irish governments, as well as with parties on the ground. In the initial stage of negotiations, the British resented the United States’ presence. But the rocky start soon gave way to cooperation, the results of which endure today.

In both Northern Ireland and postwar Germany, the United States’ decision to intervene rested on powerful domestic political considerations. The role of Irish-Americans and the Jewish community in American life undoubtedly encouraged Washington to take on the considerable risks of getting involved. The same thing is increasingly happening for Asian wartime history issues. The Chinese-American and Korean-American communities are highly organized and motivated when it comes to history issues. They have brought them very much into play domestically, as evidenced most recently by the erection of monuments to Korean comfort women in towns in New Jersey and southern California.

At home and abroad, the United States can no longer escape wartime history battles. For decades, Americans have tended to believe that the passage of time would heal all war wounds. But it hasn’t. Popular nationalism, fed in part by unfiltered dialogue online, is gaining strength across the region. The advent of democracy in China, which may not be far off, is likely only to complicate the situation as happened in South Korea. And so, the United States must be prepared to act, with the understanding that the diplomacy will be delicate and difficult but that there are compelling reasons and ample precedent for the United States to push its allies and partners to reconcile.

Only if it takes up the charge will the United States ensure success in its role as the guardian of peace and security in East Asia.

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  • GI-WOOK SHIN is the director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center; a senior fellow of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; and a professor of sociology at Stanford University. DANIEL C. SNEIDER is the Associate Director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.
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