Can Asians learn the lessons of history?

Nationalism is slowly poisoning Asian policy. But Europeans should hold back on the platitudes

Before thinking about the future one needs to understand the past. With this in mind, the European Council on Foreign Relations held a conference in Tokyo this week on the question: How do Asians see their future? The tone was set by one speaker who quoted Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

This is certainly true in relation to Asia. In January in Harbin, the Chinese unveiled a memorial to Ahn Jung-geon, a Korean who shot the Japanese prime minister in 1909 at the city’s central station in protest against Tokyo’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. In Japan Ahn – who was punished with the death penalty – is still regarded as a terrorist. But in Korea and China, he is a hero. The memorial was built on the initiative of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, who sold the idea to China’s head of state and party leader Xi Jinping – the idea of the evil Japanese unites Koreans and Chinese.

The Japanese don’t make things easy either. On Christmas Day in 2013, Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe visited the infamous Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan’s war dead – including 14 Class A war criminals executed by the Americans after the end of the war in the pacific. This immediately provoked sharp protests in China and South Korea. 

Japan’s anti-pacifist prime minister

“In Asia history is used for political purposes on both sides,” as someone put it at the conference. Territorial disputes such as the one between Japan and China about disputed islands in the East China Sea had long been a non-issue but have flared up again in recent years. Abe, an old school nationalist, wants to remove the shadows of the past and finally turn Japan into a “normal” state. From his perspective, this also includes having normal armed forces. Japan renounced war as “a country’s sovereign right” in its post-war constitution for all times, but Abe says it is now time for “a new interpretation” of Japan’s pacifist constitution. 

However, most Japanese people oppose this idea. According to a recent survey by the Kyodo news agency, 55 percent of Japanese people reject Abe’s plan to give Japan a right to “collective self-defence”, which would include the right to take part in military interventions that go beyond purely humanitarian operations.

The constitution as bible 

Pro-government security policy experts are annoyed by the unfaltering peacefulness of their compatriots. “The constitution alone cannot defend Japan”, said one at the conference. They say many Japanese have an almost “religious attitude” towards the constitution and see it as their “bible”. 

Japanese conservatives are resisting the “Sinocentric Asia” that they see looming with their great neighbour’s growing power. Like former German chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, they darkly warn: “China! China! China!” The liberal internationalism embodied by former prime pinister Keizo Obuchi, who died in the 2000s, has now given way to Shinzo Abe’s narrow, ideological nationalism. This is one reason for increasing tensions in Asia.

Could Asia learn from Europe’s experiences – for example from reconciliation between Germany and France or between Germany and Poland? After all, it took Europe two world wars to refute Aldous Huxley’s dictum. Although the Marshall Plan was certainly a smarter response to the Nazi crimes in Germany than the Treaty of Versailles to Prussian militarism, it was only after Europe was devastated for the second time that it learned its lessons. 

Europe’s impact on Japan

However, despite these lessons, nationalism has not completely vanished in Europe either, as the European elections in May illustrated. The European Union has an embassy in Tokyo, but it is not as impressive as those of member states such as the UK, which is located just next to the Imperial Palace. Nevertheless, far away from Brussels, Europe (mostly) speaks mostly with one voice. 

However, Europe would lose something of its appeal as a role model should Her Majesty’s diplomats one day have to remove the blue European flag from the British embassy. And if one day a new Scottish embassy were to open its doors, it would probably be a while before anyone would be willing to take advice from Europeans about nationalism and reconciliation. 

This article was originally published in German in Die Zeit, where Mattias Nass is a foreign correspondent. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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