Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia

Author            :      Mikyoung Kim (ed.)Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia

ISBN                :      9780415835138.

Publisher       :      Routledge London and New York

Year                 :      2016

Price               :      $184



Reviewed by Luc Walhain, Associate Professor of History, St. Thomas University, Canada.

Over the last two decades, China and South Korea have joined Japan in the circle of economic powerhouses, and in the process, the three East Asian countries have dramatically intensified their economic and cultural exchanges with one another.  However, paradoxically, this increased level of regional interaction has failed to translate into a rapprochement over the historical and territorial disputes plaguing East Asia since 1945.  On the contrary, issues, such as the comfort women, Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, history textbooks and Yasukuni Shrine visits by Japanese officials, chronically make the front pages of their national newspapers, and impede the building of trust necessary for a multilateral cooperation in the region.  In spite of their vigorous economic ties, the East Asian states remain politically divided, and continue to fret about “unresolved history problems” – domestic and transnational.  Unfortunately, most people remain trapped in the nationalist narratives they have constructed, because those issues greatly shape their national identities.  It is imperative to address those memory problems if all parties involved are serious about achieving reconciliation.  The task ahead is daunting, and will require patience, compassion, honesty, and a strong will to collaborate creatively.

Mikyoung Kim’s Routledge Handbook contains twenty-six essays, which attempt to connect memory problems and reconciliation prospects.  Kim took on the ambitious mission of bringing together twenty-eight scholars from academic institutions across East Asia, North America, Singapore and Australia, and from disciplines as diverse as history, international law, sociology, gender and culture studies.  She argues that only by working collectively will we succeed in tackling the complexity of memory issues in East Asia.  “The interwoven memory web of shared paths binds the region as one cohesive entity demanding a holistic approach to historical memory and reconciliation” (p. 1).  Her work deserves praise for the thoughtful and insightful contributions addressing this extensive, polemical and sensitive subject.  This multifaceted and transnational study examines the construction and alterations of historical memories in East Asia over the past century.  It offers helpful insight for anyone who researches or works towards reconciliation in East Asia.

The book is divided into three sections: 1) domestic trauma; 2) bilateral conflicts; and 3) challenges and prospects of East Asia’s historical reconciliation.  The first essays of the section on domestic trauma are concerned with the efforts by successive Chinese governments to shape historical memory since the end of WWII.  Tim F. Liao and Libin Zhang find that commemorative entrepreneurs in China took advantage of national day parades to dictate what to remember and what to forget in terms of collective focus and social relations, with the concomitant intent of facilitating or discouraging political reconciliation.  Rui Gao discusses the “cacophonous memories” of Japan’s war of aggression, as the official historical representation of China during the war shifted from that of victor to victim in the post-Mao era.  Gao observes that the new narratives had less to do with rectifying the historical records than with the power elite’s quest for legitimacy in a changing international context, e.g. the collapse of Communism.  She also warns that disingenuous and superficial depictions of the war are unlikely to produce true reconciliation.  Bin Xu examines the whitewashing of Mao’s collosal domestic failures, such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, during the decade following his death.  He explains that the reconciliation process did not hold the culprits accountable, but instead relied on a “rehabilitation” system, which reinstated or exonerated members of the elite, e.g. Lin Biao.  All three articles regret that the Chinese ruling elites have politicized commemorative projects, and warn that true reconciliation can only happen if one reconciles honestly with one’s history.

The next essays reveal the extent of Japan’s awkward relations with its unresolved past.  Japan continues to struggle with the issues originating from its colonization and military aggression of its East Asian neighbors until WWII, as it views itself more as victim of militarism than as victimiser in East Asia.  Yet, for a short period of time in the mid-1990s, Tokyo acknowledged its perpetrator identity, and conveyed unprecedented messages of reconciliation towards Korea and China.  Kazuya Fukuoka explains that a combination of events, including the death of Emperor Showa, the end of the Cold War and the emergence of South Korea and China as economic competitors, led Japan to seek a – shortlived – détente with its Asian neighbors.  This move prompted national debates on various issues related to Japan’s recent historical record.  Major newspapers were crucial participants in the politicization of war memories.  For instance, Shunichi Takegawa discusses how the furious disagreements over the comfort women controversy reported in feud-like exchanges by the Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers seem to have radicalized conservatives in Japan.  Clearly, war memories remain ambiguous in Japan, and this is reflected in the popular media.  Kaori Yoshida examines the gendering of war memory construction in the films about the battleship Yamato, produced after 1945, and suggests that efforts to reinstate powerful masculinity in war narratives are likely to undermine the foundation of a conciliatory national memory.  It seems that the way war memories have been constructed in the Japanese media will keep Japanese memory in a state of ambiguity, and impede reconciliation.

In South Korea, colonial victimization and the continuing torments from the Cold War occupy Korean memory.  Don Baker articulates a detailed lay of the land surrounding the main historical controversies in post-War South Korea, including the Japanese colonial period, the Korean War, the Park Chung Hee era, and the Kwangju uprising.  He argues that different collective memories, supporting competing definitions of South Korea, have fueled South Korean historical disputes.  Understanding how those collective memories have been produced and promoted is imperative to reveal how the politicization of the historical past has deeply affected Korean people’s self-perception, and undermined their ability to find reconciliation.  For instance, more than half a century later, the issue of Korean collaborators during the Japanese colonial rule still deeply divides Korean society.  Koreans are trying to face their past as well, but it is far more complicated than it appears.  Jeong-Chul Kim questions the 2009 publication of the Encyclopedia of Korean Collaborators of Japanese Colonialism, and insists that collaboration came in all shades of grey.  At one end of the spectrum, he wonders whether children should be held responsible for their ancestors’ wrongdoings, and whether the project was politically motivated.  To him, the process of such cataloging would have a greater effect on reconciliation if it led to effective discussions promoting a consensus among disputing parties, rather than to the securing of forgiveness.  Further in the book, Sungman Koh shows how zainichi Koreans (in Japan) have developed memorial services for the victims of the “red hunt” violence against the Jeju Island population between 1947 and 1954.  Contrary to the Transitional Justice project in South Korea, which tend to assign moralistic meaning to the services, those memorials focus solely on remembering the dead, and thus circumvent the complexities of assigning blame, names, etc.  To be sure, reconciliation should not be achieved without some form of apology.

In his chapter, Dong-Choon Kim, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Republic of Korea (TRCK) from 2005 to 2009, describes how the TRCK was set up and operated, its missions, objectives and limitations.  He acknowledges that institution-building, as a method of historical reconciliation, has its strengths and its shortcomings.  The TRCK activities recorded both indisputable successes and failures.  Interestingly, (DC) Kim argues that “[t]he ultimate goal of any ‘Truth Commission’ should be the empowerment of civil society to move the justice project forward” (p. 154).  He is not the only one who believes that ordinary people have a significant role to play in the process of reconciliation.  Mikyoung Kim’s chapter reviews a biography of Tauchi Chizuko, a woman who has been referred to as the “Japanese mother of Korean War Orphans.”  Tauchi looked after children in a Korean orphanage during the Japanese colonial period, through the Korean War, and until she passed away in Korea in 1968.  How Tauchi has been periodically remembered since her death underscores the powerful symbolism she has impressed on Japanese and Korean people alike: she is the repentant sinner, a bridge between two people.

Section II of the book is concerned with the major bilateral conflicts within East Asia.  Like the domestic memory problems, most bilateral issues are embedded in the legacies of colonialism and wars – hot and cold.  China and Japan have been embroiled in disputes about sovereignty over the Senkaku-Diaoyudao Islands, and Japan’s acknowledgement of war wrongdoings.  Korea and China also crossed swords over whether Goguryeo was part of Korean or Chinese history.  Between Korea and Japan, there are several unresolved history-related problems, including the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, the Comfort Women controversy, and the “repatriation” of Koreans to North Korea during the 1950s.  Finally, the path to reconciliation seems to be the most arduous between North and South Korea.  Though addressing a wide range of topics, many chapters in this section recommend that ordinary people play a leading role in or be at the centre of the efforts to repair relations.  Franziska Seraphim reminds us that, in the 1950s, groups of Chinese and Japanese citizens came together to establish the Japan-China Friendship Association, and organized atonement initiatives.  She argues that this “grassroots diplomacy,” combined with economic and cultural exchanges, would help build good relations between the two countries.  Several decades later, the context has changed, and individual citizens of China are now filing compensation lawsuits in Japan and China in order to obtain “restorative justice.”  Ja-hyun Chun views this as an important step towards true reconciliation between the two countries.

Another strategy was the highly mediatized reunions of North and South Korean families in 2000.  They reminded us of the pain inflicted by war and division, and reiterated the centrality of people in the reconciliation discourse.  Nan Kim points out that this “effectively served as the first joint North-South Korean commemoration of the Korean War” (p. 340).  Despite the intense politicization of such events, their humanitarian aspect is important for the reconciliation process.  Tessa Morris-Suzuki comes to the same conclusion in her study on the “repatriation” of thousands of Korean residents (in Japan) to North Korea during the 1950s.  She argues it is vital that Japan acknowledge its responsibility in the sufferings of the refugees, and offer assistance to those escaping from North Korea now.  The remaining chapters on bilateral disputes are of uneven quality.  Gavan McCormack, Seokwoo Lee and Hee Eun Lee provide solid analyses of the Senkaku/Diaoyudao and Dokdo/Takeshima Islands controversies, and make sensible recommendations.  Conversely, I find a few essays to be less helpful or relevant to the purpose of the book.

The final section of the book contains five reflective essays on the prospects and challenges of historical reconciliation in the region.  The authors call on the East Asian community to take a more accommodating and multilateral approach to its shared historical disputes.  Indeed, some of them suggest that the undertaking would benefit greatly from the engagement of other countries in the region, including the United States.  They also recognize that true reconciliation is only possible if we revisit our past with a spirit of collaboration, not only in order to address the disputes today, but also to look into the future and construct a “cosmopolitan memory.”  As the editor of the book concludes, “East Asia’s historical reconciliation thus demands more active participation of other parties and aspirations of universal commonality” (p. 10).

Mikyoung Kim’s Routledge Handbook is a gold mine of information, perspectives and recommendations, namely for government officials and members of civil society working towards historical reconciliation in East Asia.  It will also be of great interest to researchers in the fields of social and policy histories, memory and commemoration, human rights, the media, political science and diplomacy among others.  While most essays were well articulated and insightful, a few of them were of less relevance to the ultimate aim of the book. However, this, in no way, diminishes the merits of this remarkable study, which deals with issues of pre-eminent importance.


Suggested citation

Luc Walhain (2018), Review of “Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia”, by Mikyoung Kim (ed.), East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 11, no. 3.