Skip to main content

When history humiliates former enemies

By Jennifer Lind
updated 7:49 AM EST, Fri January 3, 2014
Saying he wanted to pray for the souls of the war dead, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a controversial visit to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo on December 26, 2013. Saying he wanted to pray for the souls of the war dead, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a controversial visit to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo on December 26, 2013.
HIDE CAPTION
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jennifer Lind: Visit by Japan's prime minister to war shrine provoked objections from China
  • She says history can be used by leaders to encourage reconciliation or to humiliate and antagonize
  • Many factors lie behind the tension between Japan and China, she says
  • Several European countries have shown how joint commemorations can advance harmony, she says

Editor's note: Jennifer Lind is associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of "Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics" (Cornell, 2008).

(CNN) -- In the wake of the Japanese prime minister's visit to Yasukuni shrine last week, Japan's struggles to move forward from its wartime past are back in the headlines. Commentators decry that Shinzo Abe's visit will increase tensions in East Asia. They are right: this gesture will curdle Japan's already sour relations with South Korea or China, and indeed has already provoked the predictable outcry. But Yasukuni visits are a symptom, not the main cause, of Japan's poor relations with its neighbors.

A country's commemoration is a vital part of its national identity, but depending on their political agendas, leaders constantly manipulate and negotiate national remembrance. Countries often glorify their own past, while vilifying their rivals' behavior and ignoring their suffering.

One country's heroes are another's villains — as seen, for example, in the Palestinian decision to name a square after Dalal Mughrabi, a young woman who carried out the deadliest terror attack in Israel's history, killing 13 children among the 38 dead. This decision outraged Israelis; an adviser to the prime minister said it represented the "glorification of murderers" and was another example of "incitement of hatred and violence against Jews and Israel."

Jennifer Lind
Jennifer Lind

On the other hand, for countries seeking reconciliation, leaders understand that they must avoid commemoration that antagonizes their partner. So, they look for inclusive, rather than alienating, ways to remember their heroes and history. Thus when the Poles and Germans commemorated the past, they mourned together at Krzyzowa, a site associated with the German resistance, which emphasized German honor rather than brutality.

The French and West German leaders in 1984 clasped hands together at Verdun (the site of the bloody World War I battle where both countries experienced monumental losses). Later, French and German leaders, alongside their American, British and Russian counterparts, bowed their heads together at Normandy.

Furthermore, reconciliation between the British and Irish was also reflected in and reinforced by commemoration. Last month in Belgium, leaders from the two countries, once bitter enemies, together paid respects to British and Irish who perished in the First World War.

All these countries adopted unifying rather than divisive themes in their commemoration, because they perceived reconciliation to be a vital interest.

Japanese PM visits a war shrine

In East Asia, a mix of domestic politics and strategic conditions are pushing in the opposite direction. China and Japan are struggling to define the rules of a region in which they are now both great powers. Tokyo resents and worries about Chinese air and naval incursions into the East China Sea, where the two countries dispute ownership of an island chain (known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China).

The Chinese see similar menace in Japan's efforts to control the islands. The Chinese also fear Shinzo Abe's desire to increase patriotic nationalism and to revise Japan's "peace constitution" to permit greater military assertiveness.

As for South Korea, one might think that the rise of Chinese power would push Seoul closer to Tokyo, particularly since the two countries share an ally in the United States. But so far this has not been the case; Seoul enjoys excellent relations with Beijing, and has shown a strong tendency toward hedging between East Asia's great powers.

Indeed, national remembrance in East Asia reflects that reconciliation is not a priority. In Tokyo, Abe's decision to visit Yasukuni was a clear choice to cater to a powerful conservative domestic political base, and to reinforce his "patriotic" agenda. Yasukuni enshrines among its 2 million souls 14 war criminals, and features a museum that whitewashes Japan's past aggression. With his visit, Abe has demonstrated that he sees nationalism -- a vital part of domestic mobilization against security threats—as more important than conciliation toward Seoul or Beijing.

For their part, China and South Korea also remember the past in ways antagonistic to Japan. China's memory of the Nanjing massacre —such as at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall-- depicts the Japanese as rapacious and incurably prone to aggression. Of course, the Chinese suffered terribly at the hands of the Japanese, and the Nanjing Massacre is a horrific blight on human history. Yet the Poles were no less wounded by the Germans, and they have chosen to reconcile with their former tormentors.

Similarly, in a controversy similar to the one over Dalal Mughrabi Square, Chinese and South Koreans have recently decided to build a statue in Harbin, China, to honor a man who assassinated a Japanese leader there. In 1909, Ahn Jung-geun shot Ito Hirobumi, a highly decorated, four-time Japanese prime minister and resident-general of Japanese-occupied Korea.

South Korean soccer fans have also unfurled massive banners of Ahn at matches against the Japanese national team. Outraged, Tokyo calls Ahn a criminal. Some have likened the statue in Harbin to building a statue to Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas.

Commemoration is not the root cause of poor relations in Northeast Asia; it is a window to just how distant relations are there. Instead of looking for ways to honor and show respect for one another's heroes and history, they remember in ways that humiliate and antagonize. Sadly, as long as prevailing strategic trends continue, we are likely to see more of the same.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Lind.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT