The political turmoil currently roiling Northeast Asia — a region that should otherwise be basking in success right now — can often seem bewildering to outsiders. One key to understanding, however, can be found in a surprising location: a single recent photograph.
On May 12, a journalist snapped a picture of Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, grinning from the cockpit of a fighter jet. Such politician photo-ops are neither unusual nor controversial in the West, where the worst thing they tend to provoke is eye-rolling (think of Michael Dukakis looking like Snoopy in a tank during his failed race for the presidency in 1988, or George W. Bush’s landing on an aircraft carrier in May 2003, and beaming under a banner declaring that the war in Iraq was a “Mission Accomplished”).
Not so in Asia, at least not these days: no sooner had the photograph of Abe appeared than howls of anger erupted across China, and one of South Korea’s largest newspapers, Chosun Ilbo, excoriated him for his “never ending provocations.”
One might have expected a picture of Japan’s leader atop military hardware to have raised a few eyebrows in the region — after all, his country is still officially pacifist. But few casual observers would have predicted just how much fury it produced, or the particular detail that sparked it. It turns out that the real outrage wasn’t Abe’s jet itself, but the marking on its side: the number 731. By unhappy coincidence, 731 also happens to have been the number of an infamous Imperial Japanese Army unit that conducted hideous chemical weapons experiments on live victims in Manchuria some 70 years ago.
That the gaffe — seen as a deliberate insult by many Chinese and South Koreans but almost certainly an accident — would trigger such furious condemnation speaks volumes about the explosive role history continues to play in Asia today, and helps explain why the region seems on the brink of not one but several conflicts.
To grasp history’s power for disruption, consider first everything Northeast Asia has going for it. In many ways things could scarcely be better at the moment, and the region’s powers should have strong motivation not to let anything rock the boat. After all, while most of the world struggles with the Great Recession, China, despite having just weathered a delicate leadership transition, is still humming. (Yes, the latest growth figures show some softening, but not the hard landing that many analysts feared.) South Korea, meanwhile, just democratically elected a strong, pro-American president, and the country’s growth rate just hit a two-year high.
And then there’s Japan, which, under Abe’s unexpectedly able stewardship, has shrugged off nearly two decades of decline and is suddenly on a tear. Despite the market turbulence this week, the Nikkei stock index has been hitting five-year highs, Sony has just posted its first profit since 2007, and Japanese consumers are finally buying again.
Sure, North Korea has tried to complicate the political picture, but even Kim Jong-un’s belligerence has proved more a blessing than a curse, since his temper tantrums only underscore the need for his neighbors to work together.
Yet, despite the many reasons to cooperate, those Asian neighbors aren’t doing so — at least on the strategic side, where things are about as bad as anyone can remember. Beijing and Tokyo are locked in an escalating squabble over the control of some desolate islets known in Chinese as the Diaoyu and in Japanese as the Senkaku islands, with armed ships from both countries playing a dangerous game of chicken in the waters offshore. Meanwhile, Japan is caught in a separate island spat with South Korea, whose president, Park Geun-hye, just spent a significant portion of a visit to Washington lambasting Abe — who, as leader of the one other powerful democratic U.S. ally in the region, should be her closest friend.
The real source of all this bitterness, of course, and the reason it’s so hard to resolve, is that it actually has little to do with the islands themselves, or with various other pretexts. As Abe’s unfortunate photo-op highlighted, what’s really at stake is the legacy of what happened in the region during the first half of the 20th century. That’s when a rapidly modernizing Japan set out to establish itself against the imperial European powers by brutally carving out and exploiting an empire of its own in Korea, Northern China and elsewhere.
Seventy-plus years later, those events still rankle, and turn small problems into big ones. Take the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. China claims that before Japan seized them in 1895, they were Chinese property — and that the decision by Washington (which seized them in turn from Japan in 1945) to hand them back to Tokyo in 1972 only perpetuated a longstanding injustice. Now that China is strong again, Beijing intends to correct the record, however little value the barren islets actually have.
Or consider another flashpoint. Abe has recently distracted attention from his economic agenda by reviving talk about revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution, one of his longstanding priorities. The prime minister’s proposals, which include renaming Japan’s “Self-Defense Forces” and allowing them to come to the aid of an ally like the United States if attacked, hardly seem radical. But Asian fear of Japanese militarism still runs so deep that even tiny moves like these create tremors.
All of which begs a big question: Why can’t these countries just let the past lie, especially when doing so would be so clearly in their interests? Yes, there are plenty of ugly traumas to overcome. But Japan has been a pacifist, liberal democracy for nearly 70 years now, and it’s hard to imagine it threatening anyone.
The answer is that no one will go first. The best thing that could happen for Asia today would be for Japan to apologize once and for all in a manner that is as clear, comprehensive and un-nuanced as possible. This means doing something like what Chancellor Willy Brandt of Germany did in 1970 when he fell to his knees before a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or when President Richard von Weizsäcker recognized the principle of Germany’s “collective responsibility” a decade later.
Imperial Japan’s crimes were not the same as Nazi Germany’s. But democratic Germany has profited enormously from its open, non-defensive approach to the country’s past, and democratic Japan would as well. Japan’s victims, for their part, should press to have their legitimate grievances comprehensively addressed — and then move on, as France, Russia and even Israel have done with the Third Reich’s descendants.
But this, sadly, is unlikely to happen: Politicians in the countries concerned have too much to gain (or so they think) from continuing to stir the pot. Thus Japan likes to point out that it has already apologized multiple times for its misdeeds, and that it has even paid compensation in some cases. This is true. But it’s also true that various Japanese politicians, catering to their conservative and contrition-weary base, continue to undermine those apologies by questioning them and the historical record.
When I interviewed Abe in Tokyo two weeks ago he was carefully opaque on whether Japan had been the aggressor in World War II, and defended the right of Japanese leaders to visit Yasukuni Shrine (where 13 Class-A war criminals are buried) by comparing it to America’s Arlington National Cemetery.
Japan’s neighbors, meanwhile, are just as guilty of exploiting the past for present ends. For all China’s talk about lost sovereignty, for example, it’s no coincidence that Beijing only started expressing interest in the Diaoyu/Senkaku after a United Nations survey suggested the presence of oil nearby in 1969. Chinese politicians also know that playing the victim card goes over very well at home. Stoking resentful patriotism is a handy way to distract the population from a raft of social and environmental problems and the hollowing-out of China’s communist ideals. Why let facts get in the way?
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Given such thinking on all sides, the chances are low that Asia will transcend its problems with history anytime soon. Yet that doesn’t mean there’s nothing the region’s leaders could do to improve things. Short of a full accounting, there’s another option that, though partial and unsatisfying, could help calm tensions. The idea, which China’s new U.S. ambassador Cui Tiankai suggested to me in an interview recently, would be to simply shelve the thorniest issues and work around them.
That is not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, such a strategy has worked elsewhere — between China and Taiwan, for example. Both Beijing and Taipei insist the island is part of China proper — but both have tacitly agreed to live with the status quo (de facto independence) without forcing the issue.
Even Japan and China have tried something similar before. In 1972, China’s prime minister, Zhou Enlai, struck a quiet deal with his Japanese counterpart, Kakuei Tanaka, to simply ignore the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. It worked: The understanding held for almost three decades, until a newly empowered China started testing the boundaries a few years ago and Japan bought the islands from a private Japanese citizen in 2012. (Tokyo claims it was only trying to prevent private building there; Beijing saw the purchase as yet another provocation.)
Striking a few new deals along these lines would not be easy today. In China especially, the nationalist demon would be hard to stuff back in its box. Nor would this approach salve the private pain of those, like former wartime “comfort women,” still seeking acknowledgement and reparations from Tokyo. But it would cool the region’s boiling waters while letting all sides save face. And it might just be the only way to avoid an actual shooting war that no side, despite the overheated talk, wants or could afford.