Skip to main content

When history humiliates former enemies

By Jennifer Lind
January 3, 2014 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
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
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT