Editor's Introduction: This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, an event that had profound implications for many Asian countries. This “Asia Beyond the Headlines” feature focuses on the impact that the Japanese surrender, which came several months after the German one, had across East Asia. I put a series of questions to three scholars—modern Japan historian Carol Gluck, China specialist Rana Mitter, and Koreanist Charles Armstrong—who have thought deeply about 1945 and its aftermath. Contacting them initially before the seventieth anniversary of VE Day had come and gone in early May, and then following up after that first big commemorative date had passed but well before the mid-August and early September dates associated with Japan's surrender, I invited them to reflect on the following issues: (1) how discussions associated with this year's anniversary have been and are likely to carry forward or break from those of one, two, three, or four decades ago; (2) what we should expect from the statements and other activities to come in mid-August and in early September; and (3) the varying ways that 1945 can be understood, depending on the part of the region in question, as bringing one era to a close, beginning another, or doing both of these things. Their responses, which engage to greater or lesser degrees with the three themes flagged in my initial questions, can be read as standalone short essays. They also fit together neatly to offer a collective window onto the varied meanings of the war and the wide-ranging debates that continue to swirl around how it should be understood, remembered, and commemorated.
Japanese commemorate the end of World War II on August 15, the date of the emperor's broadcast announcing the surrender in 1945. On that day in 2015, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe will make a speech to mark what is known in Japan as “the seventieth anniversary of the postwar,” a distinctive term that accents the peace and prosperity that followed the defeat rather than the war itself. The term is not new, but Abe's pledge to make the past “more forward looking”—an odd idea, on the face of it—put a different spin on official war memory. His government and its supporters made it clear that they wished not only to “put the past behind them”—as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently advised the Japanese and South Korean governments to do—but also to produce a proudly positive national narrative in which wartime aggression and atrocities all but sink from view beneath the patriotic waves.
The most heated issues in early 2015—the international calls for an official apology for Japan's wartime actions in Asia and its responsibility for the “comfort women” system of military brothels—proved once again that the political present determines the remembered past and that public memory does not necessarily move in a straight line from selective silence toward historical acknowledgment. Apologies, after all, had become something of a rhetorical standard in the years since the early 1990s. The conservative Japanese government apologized to the former comfort women in the 1993 Kōno Statement. On the fiftieth anniversary of the war in 1995, the socialist Prime Minister Murayama expressed “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” for the “irrefutable facts of history” that caused so much suffering to the people of Asia. And ten years later, Prime Minister Koizumi, a conservative from Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, who angered Chinese and Koreans by visiting Yasukuni, the shrine of the war dead, nonetheless reiterated Murayama's language of remorse and apology in his speech on August 15. When the opposition Democratic Party took power in 2009, the new prime minister, Hatoyama, wasted no time in pledging not to go to Yasukuni and, the following year, visited Nanjing, where he apologized for Japanese atrocities in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. One might have thought that the winds of Japan's official war memory were belatedly shifting in the direction of the acknowledgment, however formulaic or laconic, that Asians and others had come to expect.
The brutal experience of the “comfort women,” too, had become known to the world in the decades since the first South Korean former comfort woman told her story in public in 1991. Evoked as an example of the violation of human rights and unacceptable violence against women, the comfort women system appeared in the legal arguments leading to the 1998 statute of the new International Criminal Court, which made rape a crime against humanity for the first time in the indisputably long history of that common wartime offense. The Asian Women's Fund established by Prime Minister Murayama in 1995, although not an official government body, did make a gesture of recognition and compensation to former comfort women in several Asian countries. The comfort women appeared in middle-school texts in the late 1990s, and while conservatives have gradually removed them over the past decade, many Japanese possess their own opinions on the subject. In 2013, when the mayor of Osaka remarked that the comfort women had played a “necessary” wartime role, 75 percent of the Japanese polled found his comments unacceptable.
What, then, accounts for the U-turn in official commemorative rhetoric since Abe campaigned on the promise to retract earlier government apologies for the comfort women in late 2012? The short answer is politics, both domestic and international, and not only in Japan but in China and South Korea. The shorter answer is nationalism, which has gained in strength since the 1990s in each of these countries, as in so many others. Chronology also figures here, in that the politics of war memory shifted in East Asia and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War. Unlike Western Europe, which had been working toward a common war story since 1945, East Asia and Eastern Europe began that process anew during the 1990s. Japan's war narrative had been frozen in the form ordained by the American occupation, which took it upon itself in 1945 to rename the conflict the “Pacific War,” thus excluding the China War, the empire, and indeed Asia, from the main story of the war. The domestic politics of peace and prosperity, together with the U.S.-Japan alliance, then kept that story frozen in place until Japan faced the realities of post–Cold War Asia. War memory in Eastern Europe was released from the grip of the Soviet narrative after 1991, unleashing new national stories from the Baltics to the Balkans and new geopolitical friction between former wartime enemies, which for a number of nations now included both the Nazis and the Soviets. In both regions, war memory, always a matter of national identity, was both national in hue and nationalistic in tone.
In both regions, domestic politics drove the changes in war memory, which then had international consequences, rather than the other way around. China, South Korea, and Japan—like Poland, Russia, and Ukraine—used the war to unite or arouse national feeling at home and as a geopolitical cudgel abroad, exemplified by the repeated Chinese and Korean mentions of Japan's “history problem” in relation to the territorial disputes over the islands scattered in the sea between the countries. Over the past several years, the South Korean government raised the comfort women issue to new levels in domestic, regional, and international politics. As late as 2014, China established two new national holidays focused on the war: Victory Day of the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression on September 3, selecting the date China uses to mark Japan's signature of surrender the previous day, not the more common V-J Day of August 15; and December 13, the first official national commemoration of the Nanjing Massacre. In Japan, Abe played to the nationalist base of his party, taking its stand against “masochistic history” and “apology fatigue” by upholding the right-wing revisionist view that the comfort women had not been “coerced” into service. In all three countries, as in Putin's Russia and Erdogan's Turkey, domestic political concerns underlay the uses of the past, inflaming a kind of hate nationalism, most dangerously among millions of Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese youth who were learning less about the history of war and empire than about the memory of victimization and hatred.
But another chronology was also at work in the precincts of war memory: the effect of what I call a “global memory culture,” which developed over the seven decades since the end of World War II, much of it through the process of remembering the war. Its norms of how governments are expected to deal with their national pasts include the politics of apology, which did not exist in its present form in 1950; the various modes of transitional justice in use around the world; and the legal claims for recognition, redress, and compensation of individuals for wrongs they suffered during the conflict. Prime Minister Abe likely abandoned his promise to retract the earlier apologies for the comfort women because of international pressure—not least from the United States and Europe—to conform to the politics of apology. Of course this same international pressure made it easier for China and South Korea to exploit Japan's failure to apologize, heating regional hostility still more. The challenge for the Abe Statement of August 15, 2015, lies in deciding how—or whether—to balance the present demands of domestic political nationalism with the historical facts and the evolving international norms of remembering difficult pasts.
Why is the memory of the Second World War becoming more rather than less powerful in East Asia, at the same time that it is beginning finally to disappear from contemporary politics in Western Europe? In his 1991 novel, Time's Arrow, Martin Amis used the provocative tactic of a narrative reversed in time to make a powerful point about experience, memory, and its relationship to the Holocaust. It can sometimes seem as if the reversal of time is the best way to describe the changing commemoration of the Japanese surrender in Asia, and of Japan's war in China as a whole. In Europe, the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of VE Day on May 8, 2015, seems to put an end to a long historical episode, what Tony Judt characterized as the “postwar,” the moment when living memory finally begins to fade for good. In Asia, and in China in particular, the moment of Japanese surrender, between the end of fighting on August 15, 1945, and the formal surrender on September 2 of that same year, has become ever more potent, decade by decade, in contemporary Chinese domestic and international politics. In May 2015, President Xi Jinping visited Moscow to stand beside Vladimir Putin at a commemoration of the end of the war, ahead of a summer of planned parades and ceremonies to mark the seventieth anniversary of the surrender itself.
The commemoration is usually and unsurprisingly solemn, but it is not without irony (intended or otherwise). This contrast can be seen in one particular site that is heavily entwined with the anniversary: the city of Chongqing, which served as the wartime capital for China's Nationalist government from 1937 to 1946. One key institution that lets observers take the temperature of the changing memory of the surrender is the gallery of the War of Resistance to Japan (as the Sino-Japanese War is known in China) in the city's Three Gorges Museum. In 2005, the museum had only just opened, and one of its most notable displays was of the history of Chongqing as the wartime capital, complete with animated diorama reconstructions of the repeated bombing raids on the city.
In this display, the Japanese surrender and the declaration of victory over Japan stand as the culmination of a story in which the city's resilience under bombing gave it standing as the nation's most important site of resistance to the enemy. Even ten years ago, this was still slightly tricky territory to cover, since by definition it drew attention away from the preferred national narrative that it was the Chinese Communist Party, not the Nationalist government, that had been at the heart of resistance to Japan. To show how far things had come even by 2005, one need only look at Chongqing's newspapers on the successive anniversaries of the end of the war, which show the cautious changes in the way in which the locals were encouraged to see the history of the city's wartime experience. There were only relatively brief mentions in 1985, during the decade in which it became more acceptable overall for non-Communist contributions to the anti-Japanese war effort to be remembered in China's public sphere; there was yet wider coverage in 1995; and the newspapers of 2005 gave extensive coverage to the anniversary of the end of the war. There were numerous articles on local heroes, artistic and cultural figures, and commanders associated with wartime Chongqing. The sixtieth anniversary was also the last major commemoration when significant numbers of survivors of the war would still be alive. Therefore, the stories of participants were made part of the narrative, most obviously in newspaper interviews, but also in conjunction with public art. Notably, a sculpture depicting air-raid victims was displayed in July 2005 alongside a survivor of the raid itself, the ninety-one-year-old Yuan Yongzhen. Another sculpture display commemorated the War of Resistance as part of a global anti-fascist struggle, once again inserting the Chinese victory into a wider discourse that suggested a globalized history of the war, but placed China alongside the United States and Britain, and in opposition to the Japanese-dominated Asia of sixty years previous. Here, once again, public artworks were just one part of a wider political agenda that has sought to give China a new contemporary role by stressing its past as part of a global anti-fascist alliance. A 2005 study by Hu Dekun et al., Zhongguo kangzhan yu shijie fan-faxisi zhanzheng (China's war of resistance and the world anti-fascist war), was published by Shanghai's Academy of Social Sciences and exemplifies this trend on its opening page: “China was one of the four Allied powers that opposed fascism, and that the battlefields of China were among the most important battlefields of the anti-fascist war.” This new reading also emerged in popular media: for instance, a 2005 television documentary made by Chongqing local television stressed the city's role as a wartime capital alongside Washington, Moscow, and London.
On return to the museum in April 2015, it is clear that official histories have not only encouraged these narratives but expanded them hugely. Ahead of the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war, the city's authorities have marked yet more sites of memory from the wartime period, including an air raid shelter where more than 1,500 people suffocated to death on June 5, 1941. Another such location is Chiang Kai-shek's wartime retreat outside Chongqing, at Huangshan, which has for some years been open as a site of war memory, but has innovated by hiring actors to dress up as Chiang, complete with faint moustache and black robe, and welcome visitors to the building. As China prepares to commemorate the anniversary at a national level, with spectacular parades, media coverage, and conferences planned, it is often at the local level, in places such as Chongqing that have an ambiguous relationship with the national-level narrative of the war, that one can see the most obvious changes in the nature of the commemoration in the past few decades.
In Korea, August 15, 1945, is commemorated not as the end of a war but as the beginning of liberation. More precisely, the date is celebrated as a return—“Kwangbok” (光復), literally “return of light.” The Korean peninsula was not the site of any major battle during World War II, and the war did not affect Korea directly. Its indirect effects, however, were profound: millions mobilized to work in Japanese mines and factories, one hundred thousand soldiers recruited into the Imperial Army, tens of thousands of “comfort women” pressed into sexual slavery. The long-term effects of the nascent industrialization, political polarization, and social dislocation of the wartime period would shape both Koreas for many years to come. But when the war, the culmination of thirty-five years of colonial rule, came to an end that August day, the overwhelming majority of Koreans wanted to put this decades-long nightmare behind them. As it turned out, the “return” of Korean independence marked the beginning of national division and civil war, a nightmare from which Koreans have yet to awaken.
Despite their deep mutual antagonism, both Korean regimes, North and South, promote an official view of the Japanese colonial period, and the wartime years in particular, that is unremittingly negative. Where they differ is on the question of resistance, because each side bases its legitimacy on a different heritage of struggle against Japanese colonial rule. For the North, ever since the cult of Kim Il Sung became orthodoxy in the 1950s and 1960s, it is Kim's anti-Japanese guerrilla war in Manchuria that has been celebrated as the single basis of Korean independence (while acknowledging that the Soviet Union, and perhaps even the United States, was instrumental in defeating Japan in World War II). The Republic of Korea in the South traces its lineage to the Korean Provisional Government, established in Shanghai in 1920, which accompanied the Chinese Nationalists to Chongqing during the war.
Still, the South Korean government's relationship to the colonial past has been more complex and ambivalent than its heroic official narrative suggests, and the continuation of “collaborators” from the Japanese period into the post-independence regime of Syngman Rhee and beyond colored South Korea's nationalist legitimacy in the eyes of critics in both the North and the South. The government of Roh Moo-hyun (2003–8) supported the compilation of a “Dictionary of Pro-Japanese Koreans” that was to list all “collaborators” with the colonial regime, to be published on the sixtieth anniversary of liberation in 2005. This effort to “settle the record” on the heroes and villains of the colonial past was delayed and published without much fanfare in 2009. Roh's successor Lee Myung-bak and the current president Park Geun-hye (daughter of former president Park Chung Hee, known in his youth as Lieutenant Takagi Masao of the Manchukuo Imperial Army) have shown little interest in settling scores with colonial pasts.
Many previous anniversaries of August 15 have been imbued with special emotional resonance, beginning with the third anniversary in 1948, when the Republic of Korea was established in Seoul, making August 15 a day of both national liberation and national foundation. (The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was founded in Pyongyang three weeks later, and August 15 has been less celebrated in North Korea than in the South.) Perhaps the most notorious anniversary was the twentieth, coming on the heels of the bitterly contested (in South Korea at least) Japan-ROK normalization treaty. But certainly the most dramatic anniversary of liberation was the fiftieth in 1995, when the Government-General building in downtown Seoul—the most imposing structural reminder of Korea's colonial past—was ceremonially demolished, beginning with the removal of its dome by dynamiting. The destruction of the Government-General building was intended to mark a final break with Japanese colonial legacies, as the Kim Young Sam government sought to establish South Korea as an “advanced economy” with its own place in the sun. One year later, this status was seemingly confirmed when South Korea entered the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the club of rich countries in Paris whose only other Asian member was Japan.
In the 1990s, what Carol rightly calls “global memory culture” reached new heights and Japan seemed finally to come to terms with its wartime past to the satisfaction (more or less) of its Asian neighbors. Koreans saw the Kōno Statement, the Murayama apology, and international acknowledgment of the “comfort women” atrocity as signs that Japan, the rest of East Asia, and indeed the world as a whole had reached agreement about the memory of and responsibility for the crimes of Japanese aggression in World War II. Scholars in Japan, Korea, and China began working on common history textbooks. It seemed that East Asians, like Europeans, could finally put the war behind them and work toward building a cooperative regional community. But this moment of good will and shared memory did not last long. Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine in the 2000s inflamed nationalist sentiment in Korea and China, and Abe's rhetorical backpedaling on Japan's apologies has created a predictable backlash in Seoul and Beijing. In 2015, Japan-ROK relations are at their lowest point in decades. This is not only because of what Abe has done or said but also because of South Korean domestic politics. As Carol points out, nationalism has been on the rise globally and perhaps nowhere more than in East Asia. A South Korean president with flagging domestic support will try to raise his or her ratings by speaking out against Japan—or allegedly pro-Japanese Koreans—as Roh Moo-hyun did in 2004, or Lee Myung-bak did by visiting Tokto/Takeshima in 2012, or Park Geun-hye did by snubbing the Japanese prime minister. Secretary Kerry's stated wish for the governments of Seoul and Tokyo to put the past behind them and just get along—something the United States has been trying to get Koreans and Japanese to do since 1945—has difficulty breaking through the mutually reinforcing nationalisms of Japan and South Korea.
World War II memory remains a point of contention between Korea and Japan, and criticism of Japan's official position on the war (however much this criticism may be justified) is an easy source of nationalist points for South Korean politicians. But the most lasting and destructive legacy of the war, and the Cold War that immediately followed, is the division and militarization of the Korean peninsula. Rana began by evoking Martin Amis, and I would like to conclude with a quote from his father Kingsley. A few weeks after the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, Kingsley Amis wrote a prescient article in an American magazine, The Nation (August 8, 1953), comparing divided Korea to Kashmir and Palestine. Amis remarked that “it is dangerous to allow a cease-fire line to harden into a frontier . . . . India and Pakistan cannot indefinitely endure the tension of indecision in Kashmir, while relations between Israel and its neighbors remain dangerously bitter on a frontier that was never intended to do more than recognize a temporary fait accompli.” Postcolonial partition is not unique to Korea, but the combustible mix of hasty American planning for Japan's surrender on the Korean peninsula, Soviet and American confrontation in the emerging Cold War, and an ambivalent end to inter-Korean conflict leaves us with Korea as one of the most dangerous military flashpoints in the twenty-first century. World War II ended seventy years ago. However much the governments of Japan, Korea, and China may dispute the history of that event and the responsibility for (and extent of) its horrors, the war itself lies safely in the past. The Korean War remains with us, frozen in time.