A deliberative Approach to East Asia’s Contested History

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A Deliberative Approach to East Asia’s Contested History

Professor Baogang He, Chair in International Studies, School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University, Australia, baogang.he@deakin.edu.au

Dr David Hundt, Lecturer in International Relations, School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University, Australia, dhundt@deakin.edu.au

History matters.1 The history of East Asia—and in particular the legitimacy of war, national boundaries and political units—has been fiercely contested for much of the post-war period. Competing nationalist conceptions and interpretations of history have encouraged states to lay claim to their own legitimacy while denying that of others. History not only plays a significant role in nation building and the construction of national identity, but it has also generated controversy, hindering regional reconciliation and integration (He 2004b; Moon and Suh 2007).

A nationalist approach to contested history has created serious problems such as depriving discussions about history of deliberation and reason, inciting needlessly adversarial emotions, denying and excluding certain groups from debate, creating endless disputes, intensifying diplomatic rows, and hindering regionalism. An alternative approach is urgently needed.

Drawing on the theory of “deliberative democracy” we develop a two-step deliberative approach to the recording of Asia’s contested history. The first is theoretical. We develop a new politics of history and deliberative approach with the specification of ideal-type conditions for deliberation. The approach encourages pluralist rather than nationalist, deliberative rather than emotional, readings of history. By allowing for an “ethics of difference” (Bleiker 2005), we seek to facilitate a more open debate about history, and to “democratize” the retelling of the past. Our pluralist and deliberative approach to discussing, recalling and recording history provides a deliberation-based “public space” (He 2004a) in which to achieve a minimal, mutually acceptable account of the war. This in turn fosters movement towards what Jürgen Habermas terms the most “valid” interpretation of history (see Suh 2007).

The second step is empirical. We first map forms of discussion and debate on history, and then undertake an empirical testing to ascertain the degree to which civil society groups and citizens have been involved and deliberation has occurred. We highlight the Modern History of East Asia project, which entailed the production of a history textbook for use in China, Japan and South Korea.2 The project, which involved mainly NGOs and schoolteachers, sought to overcome the “liberation–invasion” dichotomy that characterizes the retelling of regional history (Hundt and Bleiker 2007). We contrast MHEA with less inclusive modes of dialogueand in particular a dispute between China and South Korea that erupted at precisely the same time as the MHEA project was underway. By juxtaposing the Goguryeo–Gāogōulì dispute with the success of MHEA, this paper provides an account of factors leading to deliberative and non-deliberative dialogues, examines the limits and problems of the deliberative approach, and discusses the dynamic potential of a deliberative approach to dialogue.

Writing history in the Region
Before proceeding further it is worth detailing the historical issues that have been subjected to dispute. Sets of disputes—and it is useful to think in terms of sets because disputes are often inter-related—revolve around at least three periods in time.

The first set of disputes involves the possession—in the physical and spiritual sense—of cultural assets derived from long-extinct civilizations. China and the Koreas, for instance, both claim to be the legitimate heirs to a kingdom that occupied certain parts of what are now northern China and the Korean peninsula. In addition to the Goguryeo–Gāogōulì kingdom, issues such as the lineages of Confucius, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong, traditional medicine, calligraphy and the Dano–Duanwu (Dragon Boat) Festival have all become objects for dispute between Korea and China (Lee 2008). By securing a claim to the history of an ancient civilization, governments seek to eliminate competing claims in the present to their sovereign right to the territories where those civilizations existed—and all people, natural resources and other assets within those territories. What Koreans refer to as the Goguryeo kingdom encapsulates territory within China’s present borders. While Koreans have not sought to reclaim that territory, they have laid claim to the history of the kingdom. A variant of East Asia’s territorial disputes involve islets such as Tokdo/Takeshima (in the Sea of Japan/East Sea), the Daiyou/Senkakus in the South China Sea, and the Kuriles/ Northern Islands to the north of Hokkaido. In each case, the contestation persists because one country exercises possession and effective control of the islets while the other is unwilling to forego its exclusive claims of historical ownership.

A second set of disputes is based on the ways in which certain militaries maltreated the peoples of neighboring countries prior to and during World War II. An oft-cited case is the Nanking Massacre/Rape of Nanking. At issue is whether Japan’s siege and occupation of Nanking accorded with the normal laws of war (such that they existed at the time), which forbids indiscriminate violence against civilians. A related issue surrounds the Comfort Women—those women in occupied Asia who were recruited as prostitutes for use by Japanese soldiers. The main contentions here are the extent to which the Japanese military was complicit with the recruitment of the women, and whether this recruitment was coercive and thus illegal (see Soh 1996).

The third set of disputes surrounds contemporary accounts of precisely the issues outlined above. For instance renditions of history in Chinese and Korean textbooks that portray Goguryeo as either solely and perpetually a part of China’s multicultural history, or as the forerunner to the present-day Korean state, produce outcry from the other country. On the other hand, Chinese and Koreans have united in their condemnation of Japanese renditions of history that appear to downplay Japan’s atrocities during the war (Seraphim 2008). In light of this perceived whitewashing of history, former president Roh Moo-hyun was quoted as saying: “While Japan has issued statements of regret and apologies for its past wrongdoings at various occasions, we are led to question their sincerity when they are marred by acts at odds with their expressions of repentance” (Roh 2007: 11). Some Japanese, in contrast, argue that their country has apologized sufficiently in the decades since the end of the war, and that it is now time for Japan to act like a “normal” country. In addition to disputing the ways in which Japan portrays the actions of its army in the first half of the 20th century, Chinese and Korean critics also charge Japan with being disrespectful of the feelings of its neighbors. China and Korea argue that visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese prime ministers lends official sanction to actions of wartime leaders, some of whom were found guilty of war crimes and subsequently enshrined at Yasukuni. Some Japanese, in contrast, argue that visiting the shrine is merely a symbol of remembrance to those who fought and died for Japan.

These many and varied divergences are significant given that the process of collecting, editing and publishing national history tends to belongs to, and fall under the control of, the state in East Asia. States have established official institutes to oversee the process of preparing school history textbooks, and history as a modern academic discipline has been an indispensable tool for constructing a linearity of collective memory while also suppressing plural and local reporting methods. Only in recent years has a loosening of this practice provided an opportunity for civil society groups to develop a view of national history, bringing it closer to the practice of Western societies, where history as an academic discipline is widely viewed as something independent from the state.

History is the spiritual home of the past. From a nationalist perspective, democracy cannot provide a universally accepted criterion for deciding which people and territories are to be included in a political community (Whelan 1983). The nationalist approach appeals to the common tradition, history and culture of the “nation”, relying on commonalties of biology, psychology and spirituality. Nationalists appeal to history because its uniqueness legitimates claims over territories, and grants at least some power to eradicate disputes. Therefore the significance of history principally lies in the exclusion or minimization of endless disputes. Even though nationalists appeal to historical “facts” and “evidence”, Ernest Renan noted a century ago that: “Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation” (cited in Alterman 1999). These “facts” at the heart of nationalist narratives may well be fabricated, and often lack deliberative qualities. They tend to assert partisan claims while ignoring and denying those of others. The state often monopolizes debate and sets limits to the articulation of the official narrative. The final determinant is not reason but national interest and power.

With the rise of nationalism in East Asia, the rewriting of history has become more common. History tends to be written with specific audiences in mind, making problematic the recounting of events such as war and colonialism that, by their very definition, imply the involvement of numerous countries. It is thus not surprising that opinions diverge on how to depict East Asia’s history during the turbulent, roughly 100-year period that began with the Opium Wars and ended with Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. No country stood outside that turbulence, so there is no “neutral” space from which to recall events in a dispassionate manner. Consequently nationalist viewpoints have dominated the retelling of the region’s history, and there has been limited progress in writing a more nuanced “regional” history. Whereas the number of people who directly experienced the traumas of the war is dwindling, the collective memory remains strong and has been continually replicated in historical accounts such as school textbooks. The war and its aftermath represent the birth—or re-birth—of independent nation-states, which consequently have appropriated that trauma and attempted to use it to forge new, cohesive national identities. In this sense state leaders have jealously guarded the recounting of history, exacting a substantial cost in terms of regional integration.
A Deliberative Approach to Contested History
There is a growing literature on theories of deliberative democracy, resulting from the “deliberative turn” in the early 1990s (Cohen 1989; Cohen and Sabel 1997; Dryzek 1990, 1996, 2000; Elster 1998; Fung 2003; Fung and Wright 2001; Goodin 2002; Habermas 1984, 1996). Unlike liberal democracy, deliberative democracy does not rely solely on the aggregation of preferences and majority voting. It prioritizes to reasoned argument and discussion in which “interests” are recognized but do not dominate proceedings. In deliberative democracy, the force of the better argument should prevail over wealth and political influence. Deliberative democratic theorists also stress the capacity, right and opportunity of citizens to participate in collective decisions. Through an equal distribution of the power to make collective decisions, and equal and effective opportunities to participate in collective judgments, democratic procedures can shift decisions from money and power to deliberation. Communication—argument, challenge, demonstration, symbolization and bargaining —should ensure that arguments and statements are factually true, normatively right and expressively sincere (Habermas 1984, 1996).

John Dryzek considers the degree to which deliberative democracy can offer a distinctive approach to the issue of mutually contradictory identity, calling for deliberative politics in the public sphere. According to Dryzek (2005), engagement in the public sphere ought to be semi-detached from the state, or dissociated from sovereign authority. The public sphere, the conditionality of sovereignty and the transnationalization of political influence feature in his vision of deliberative democracy in divided societies.

James Fishkin developed an experimental study of the role of deliberative democracy in managing conflicts over national identity. He organized a “deliberative poll” about children’s education policy in Omagh, Northern Ireland in January 2007, where 127 Protestants and Catholics deliberated in small-group discussions and plenary sessions. The perceptions of participants changed via deliberation. The proportion that believed that Protestants were “open to reason” increased from 36% to 52%, while the proportion believing Catholics were “open to reason” increased from 40% to 56%. There was also a dramatic increase in the proportion of each community that viewed the other as “trustworthy”. For Catholics, the proportion rose from 50% to 62%; for Protestants, it rose from 50% to 60%. The experiment confirms that citizens are open to rational discussion and willing to change their opinions, and that deliberation can reduce conflict and enhance mutual trust in divided societies (Fishkin et al 2007).

By building on previous research and applying deliberative democratic theory to historical disputes, this paper attempts to develop an ideal-type deliberative approach to contested history. History can be both a burden and/or liberation. All histories are contemporary histories, according to Croce (1941: 19), or the history of ideas in the opinion of Collinwood (1946). In the eyes of Oakeshott (1933: 99), history is instead the product of historians whose writing creates it, while for Carr (1961) history is a continuing dialogue between historians and their constructed “facts” and between past events and the present. The nationalist politics of history often features politicization, the use and misuse of the past, and deliberately subjective and manipulative interpretations and distortions of history (Heisler 2008). This paper attempts to develop a new politics of history through public deliberation in the transnational public sphere. We see history as a deliberative process whereby historians, civil society groups and ordinary citizens engage the dialogue and confirm minimal bare facts as a basis for communication; and thereby prevent history from being monopolized by a small number of state-sponsored and sanctioned experts.

The main features of the deliberative approach to historical disputes are explained below and summarized in Table One along with a set of testable empirical questions (which will be used for empirical testing in later discussion).

Table One: Elements of the Deliberative Approach to Contested History


Ideal Type

Testable Questions


Rather than historians or experts sponsored by the state, citizens and civil society groups play leading roles in dealing with historical disputes. They develop a regional public sphere to overcome nationalist histories.

Can ordinary citizens and civil society groups play significant roles in dealing with historical disputes? Is it possible to develop a regional public sphere?


In contrast to the exclusive, secretive and manipulative state-led process, the deliberative process is inclusive, open and deliberative.

Is it possible to develop a democratic and inclusive process to overcome the closed extant process?


In contrast to intense, emotional and adversarial nationalist narratives, the deliberative approach is reflective and critical, promotes mutual respect for the perspective of others, and allows participants to change one’s views.

To what degree are contentious issues debated? Is it possible to engage in genuine deliberation on historical issues?


If citizens engage in a communicative manner, deliberation can clarify the bare minimum of facts and develop regional identities to overcome nationalist historiographies.

Can deliberation achieve the bare minimum of facts? Can regional identities overcome nationalist histories in East Asia?

First, deliberative democracy regards history as a dialogue between the past and present, and between all parties. It prioritizes reasoned argument and discussion, while recognizing the importance of power and interests. Within the nationalist paradigm, the question of “what” has dominated historical inquiries without giving due space for the question of “who”. In the deliberative democracy paradigm, civil society groups and ordinary citizens are offered an opportunity to argue and debate, and they may be willing to change their opinions during the process of deliberation.

Eric Alterman (1999) imagines a perfect world where the warring sides in ethnic disputes over territory, for an example, in the case of Kosovo, might lay down their arms and submit themselves to a panel of historical experts who would study the historical record of a battle that occurred more than 600 years in Kosovo and determine which side’s claims had greater merit. There would be a ruling, and each side would give up its unjustifiable demands in the face of superior historical documentation. Such a deliberative world allows reason and intellectual power to decide the matter. Alterman’s appproach is deliberative but not democratic. For a deliberative democrat, the judgment of historical experts is insufficient. The people and their sheer number matter in history, as Carr (1961) reminded us. This ontological view constitutes a basis for ordinary citizens and civil society groups to participate in the process of history-writing so as to achieve sufficiently broad public consensus and legitimacy to deal with all historical disputes.

A second feature of our approach is an opening up the issue of “the facts”. Deliberation subjects biased and selective histories to debate. For a deliberative democrat, any argument based on history must be subject to rational scrutiny and criticism, because conflicting versions of history do not constitute a solid basis for resolution. The solution lies in a compromising spirit whereby each side takes the perspective of the other seriously. In other words, historical claims and disputes can be and ought to be examined through a communicative action in a deliberative process. In this sense, history can be negotiated and be part of a democratic mechanism (Pingel 2008).

Dryzek’s pluralist discursive democratization (2006: 154–7) challenges the state’s monopolization of discourses about history. A deliberative approach thus aims to democratize nationalist discourses by encouraging critical reflections of history, its methods and assumptions. Democratic thinking raises new questions, which nationalist historians rarely ask, or tend to ignore. For example, Lukman Thaib argues that since the Dutch failed to hold a plebiscite, referenda or election in the 1940s, they had no right to hand Aceh—a territory which was not theirs in the first place—to Indonesia upon the independence of the republic. This kind of democratic questioning of the past seeks to democratize the dead. That is, it aims to represent and express the voices of the dead people who are the main subject in the retelling of past events. But problems arise here too: If people in the past, present and even future are to have equal representation in the writing of history, how can the dead be adequately included? It may be impossible to ascertain the number of the dead, and it may well be that the dead are not intellectually capable of partaking in the exercise at hand. Nonetheless the spirit of democracy pervades the deliberative project and serves as its guiding ethical principle.

Third, a deliberative approach is transnational and as such stresses the role of transnational civil society (He 2004a; He and Murphy 2007). To go beyond the nationalist conception of history, it must be plural. Consequently, one must seek a minimal understanding and form a regionalist perspective. An ideal-type regional public sphere on history would encompass transnational networks and organizations, and equal recognition of others beyond national sovereignty. Recognizing the potentially disastrous consequences of a return to an age of interstate warfare, Jae-Jung Suh calls for regional actors to recognize each other as legitimate participants in a dialogue about the salient past within a common framework of meaning in order to create a regional public sphere: “East Asia… now stands at a fork between strengthening the regional public sphere and fracturing it into a contentious public sphere” (Suh 2007: 382).

In the last decade, many democratic theorists have undertaken the empirical study of deliberative institutions through several experiments focusing on citizens’ participation (Fishkin 1991, 1995; Fung 2001, 2003). Rather than organizing an experiment with the input of researchers, this paper will undertake a study of the real dialogues in a variety form. Below we first map various dialogues, then select two contrasting cases as a quasi-experimental study.
Mapping Dialogue in Northeast Asia
Despite the propensity of some state leaders to promote a narrowly interpreted view of history, there have been various attempts to expose East Asian history to scrutiny. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an exhaustive list of all dialogues, and instead Table Two provides a typology of dialogues about the region’s history.

We consider the national, intergovernmental and public sphere domains. The national domain indicates that history is written by and for the purposes of an individual state, while the intergovernmental domain involves the input of several states. The public sphere, in contrast, involves both state and non-state actors in the recording of history. In terms of the degree of deliberation, we typologize dialogues as low (or non-existent), moderate and substantial. At the lower end of the spectrum, we situate dialogues about Northeast Asia’s regional history involving only nationalist perspectives. The moderate degree of debating, meanwhile, is attached to those dialogues where nationalist perspectives coexist but prove to be ultimately inflexible and non-reflexive. At the substantial level, dialogues over history overcome nationalist perspectives through a process—quite possibly traumatic for the parties concerned—of critically re-examining all perspectives, including one’s own.

Table Two: Locating Dialogues about East Asian History


Degree of Deliberation





* Verification of the Rape of Nanking

* Northeast Project/ Goguryeo Research Foundation

* Truth and Reconciliation Commission

* Yomiuri Shimbun project


* Tokyo Trials

* San Francisco Peace Conference

* Treaty of Basic Relations

* Sino–Japanese Joint Declaration

* Obuchi–Jiang summit

* Obuchi–Kim summit

Regional Public Sphere

* Joint history test

* Beijing Women’s Conference

* Modern History of East Asia

Sectors 1, 2 and 3 of the table represent the varying degrees of national-level dialogues. These dialogues are by definition non-competitive nationalist discourses in that they only involve the perspectives of only one country. The second set of dialogues (4, 5 and 6) are typified as competitive nationalist discourses in that they represent occasions when multiple nationalist narratives coexist but do not accept each other’s validity. The third set of dialogues (7–9) represent concerted attempts to overcome nationalist discourses and instead privilege accurate accounts of East Asian history.

The discussion in this section starts and ends with the two contrasting sectors of the table—Sector 1, which represents the least reflective accounting of regional history, and Sector 9, which indicates the optimal conditions for an accurate retelling of the past. Subsequently, we contrast the national-level efforts to discuss East Asian history—China’s Northeast project, the Gogyureo Research Foundation, and the Japanese assessment of the Rape of Nanking—with the MHEA project, which best fits the conditions for deliberative democracy.
Dialogues at the National Level

When history is re-imagined, re-told and re-written free of competing voices, He Yinan tells us, it is vulnerable to “mythmaking”. Especially when history is wholly or predominantly the remit of state elites, critical faculties may be seriously impaired. For He, it is precisely this “divergence of national memories created by elite historical mythmaking” that has “perpetuated and reinforced the problems of history in Japan–China relations” (2006: 69). A prime example of a nationalist and non-reflective dialogue about the past occurred when a Japanese rightwing group met to discuss allegations about the mistreatment of Chinese citizens at the hands of Japanese troops at Nanking. Dubbed the “Verification of the Rape of Nanking: The Biggest Lie of the Twentieth Century”, the conference—unsurprisingly, given its name—found no evidence to support the numerous claims from Chinese and other non-Japanese sources that the imperial army had wantonly assaulted the citizens of the city and the troops defending Nanking. This verdict, which sought to restore the reputation of Japanese troops, sparked an outcry from Chinese citizens (Gong 2001: 48).

A second example is the dispute that engulfed China and the two Koreas in regards to the historical ownership of the Goguryeo (高句麗, Gāogōulì) kingdom. Goguryeo is of great historical importance to Korea, being one the three kingdoms (along with Silla and Baekche) that unified and formed the Koryo dynasty in the seventh century AD. The issue stemmed from North Korea’s attempt to have Goguryeo murals listed by UNESCO as a site worthy of world heritage protection. China responded by asking UNESCO to list Goguryeo castles and tombs, thereby explicitly stating that Goguryeo belonged to China. It also launched the Northeast Project (東北工程), which, along with other history projects about China’s borderlands, intended to strengthen Chinese claims to Goguryeo (Kim 2005: 142–3).

Another foray into deliberation can be found in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 2005 to investigate controversies in Korean history such as collaboration with the colonial Japanese government prior to and during World War II. As such, the Commission sought information—via forensic searches, eyewitness accounts, scholarly research and testimony by perpetrators—about not only the actions of Japan at the time but also the culpability of Korean officials in the war effort (Cumings 2007: 262). It had long been suggested that leaders such as Park Chung Hee—a hero to conservative Koreans for his nation-building efforts—had been intimately involved in the colonial state, but the Commission also uncovered evidence that many more Koreans had collaborated in some way. While the “truth” component of the Commission’s remit appeared to challenge the state-centric historiography, the revelations about prominent Korean officials—some of whose children were still prominent in public life—resulted in little reconciliation. The commission process exacerbated conflict between conservatives and their progressive rivals, and fell short of the substantial level of dialogue necessary for a full and accurate account of regional history. Nonetheless the airing of differing opinions about Korean history (see Lee 1998: 334–5) represents movement towards a more pluralist historiography of events in the broader region.

A third example of national-level dialogue occurred when the editor-in-chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Tsuneo Watanabe, broke with conservative ranks in Japan by calling for a resolution to the history issue. In an interview in 2006 he stressed how visits to the Yasukuni Shrine acts as a symbolic impediment to better relations with other countries in the region. Watanabe stated that the “Yasukuni Shrine operates a war museum that incites militarism and displays exhibits in praise of militarism. It is wrong for the Prime Minister to visit such a place” (quoted in Cameron 2006: 14).

The Yomiuri “project” concentrated on five issues: the extension of the war following the Manchurian Incident of 1931; the decision to go to war with the US; the employment of suicide bombers (kamikaze); efforts to bring the war to an end; and the Tokyo Tribunal. The “verdict” reached was that a small group of hardliners were responsible for strategic blunders and for needlessly prolonging the war. Further, the Yomiuri researchers apportioned some blame to moderates (who found it difficult to oppose the hardliners), the emperor (who feared assassination), and also to the Diet and media—including the Yomiuri itself—for not criticizing the disastrous path of the war at the time (Takahiko 2007: 45–8; see also Yomiuri Shimbun War Responsibility Reexamination Committee 2007).

Dialogues at the Intergovernmental Level

Although the national-level dialogues are necessarily limited in the degree of input they entail, some dialogues at the intergovernmental level also fall short of adequate accounts of the past. Two events that belong to the lowest end of this category are the Tokyo Trials, held in 1946 to assess the guilt of Japanese leaders accused of war crimes, and the San Francisco Peace Conference (1951), which sought to resolve outstanding issues from the Pacific War.

The Tokyo Trials have provided grist for Japan’s nationalist mill precisely because they were seen to dispense “victors’ justice” in the aftermath of the war. Prosecutors drawn from a range of victor nations, including India, Malaysia and China, charged Japanese leaders such as General Tojo Hideki (military commander and prime minister) and General Heitaro Kimura (commander of Japanese forces that brutalized Allied troops in Burma) with war crimes. In total, about 30 Japanese high-ranking officials were executed or given life sentences for their crimes. While the evidence against these officials was substantial, for the purposes of this paper it is worth noting that the Trials did not represent a “dialogue” insofar as the outcomes appeared to be predetermined. Moreover, political considerations limited the degree to which the Japanese state’s actions were scrutinized. For instance the emperor and members of the royal family were spared prosecution, and some officials indicted for war crimes—such as Nokesube Kishi, prime minister from 1957—were later rehabilitated and served in the post-war Japanese government (Horvat 2006: 221).

In a similar manner, the San Francisco Peace Conference failed to meet its ostensible aim of finalizing issues from the war. The US played a critical role in limiting the scope of dialogue and also its range of interlocutors. Against the backdrop of the early phases of the Cold War, the host of the Conference sought to promptly resolve war-related issues. As such some concerns of the Korean and Chinese governments—not to mention their citizens—were excluded, and the United States prevented aggrieved parties from making open-ended claims for compensation against Japan. One set of issues that remained unresolved, for instance, were territorial disputes such as Tokto–Takeshima. More seriously, a thoroughgoing dialogue about the war was impossible (Horvat 2006: 216, 221; Torpey 2006).

Moving further along the spectrum of intergovernmental dialogues, there are cases of the leaders of East Asian states finding a modus vivendi about the past in the name of better relations in the present and future. Prime examples were the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan on the one hand and South Korea (1965) and China (1972) on the other. The United States played a role in re-establishing economic and political relations between Japan and Korea. This was crucial to solidifying America’s alliances in East Asia, and the US convinced the two countries that their shared prosperity hinged on better relations—despite any lasting antipathy (Cumings 1984: 19–20). Consequently in 1965, precisely two decades after the end of Japanese rule in Korea, the two countries signed the Treaty of Basic Relations and embarked on what has proven to be a tempestuous dialogue about their shared history. Korea’s authoritarian ruler, Park Chung Hee, faced down popular opposition to the re-establishment of diplomatic ties due to his belief that Korean development would benefit from Japanese input. Indeed, it should be noted that the Korean government, under Park, was the recipient of substantial grants and loans that aided industrial development from the mid 1960s. In this sense the Korean side was compensated to some degree—though certainly not to the extent that domestic critics demanded. The establishment of a bilateral dialogue was thus very much a state-to-state affair: voices critical of the terms of the settlement were almost entirely excluded from the Korean side—although leftists in Japan were certainly critical of the seeming absolution of the wartime government’s actions (Hundt and Bleiker 2007: 66–9).

Just as Japan reached a settlement with Korea, it began a process of settling affairs with Communist China—by then acknowledged as the ruler of the mainland, if not other Chinese territories—in 1972. Again it is noteworthy that the settlement was between heads of state rather than all aggrieved parties—although, as Purnendra Jain notes (2006: 133–4), sub-national governments helped lay the groundwork for rapprochement at the national level. And in the case of China—unlike Korea—there was no call for compensation as such. The Sino–Japanese Joint Declaration, the initial formalization of rapprochement, established a dialogue about the war and its conduct. Notably, it was agreed that while Japan was indeed the aggressor and had committed a variety of crimes against its neighbors, the blame for this was sheeted home to the military clique at the top of the government (He 2006: 73–4). In other words, convicted war criminals such as Tojo took the blame for the war. This was a convenient compromise for both parties, allowing the two governments to establish a new era of bilateral relations. In this spirit, the two sides agreed, “history not forgotten is a guide to the future” (quoted in Suh 2007: 394; see also Dirlik 1991).

Even more substantive bilateral summits occurred in 1998. The summit between Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Korean President Kim Dae-jung, and the one between Obuchi and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, both produced statements outlining intentions to forge a new era of amicable relations in the region. And yet due to crucial differences in the wording of the statements emanating from the summits, the Obuchi–Jiang summit can be classified as offering a moderate degree of deliberation at the state level while the Obuchi–Kim summit was more significant in terms of its impact on regional harmony. Gerrit Gong’s analysis of the respective summits is insightful. A crucial difference between the two statements, Gong claims, was that Obuchi offered Kim—but not Jiang—“a written apology… for past sufferings” that Japan had caused its neighbors prior to and during the war. Furthermore, “Kim accepted with sincerity this statement of Obuchi’s recognition of history and expressed his appreciation for it” (2001: 46, 50). According to Gong, domestic political considerations prevented Jiang—visiting Japan only six weeks after Kim—from being similarly conciliatory towards Japan (2001: 51).

Dialogues in the Public Sphere

The public sphere, in contrast to the national- and intergovernmental-level dialogues, offers the potential for a qualitatively different variety of discussions about history. Even at its lowest level of intensity, the potential impact of deliberation in the public sphere is striking. A good example is the joint effort between three schools—in Seoul, Tokyo and Hebei—to conduct a history test for middle school students in the three countries. The test was conducted as part of efforts to promote the MHEA textbook (discussed below).

The findings of the test were revealing. Taken as an aggregate, the students from all three countries averaged about 45% for the test, and on average each cohort of students correctly answered more than 50% of the questions relating to their own country. However this figure dropped to 20–30% for question relating to other countries (Ahn et al 2005). Some questions—such as ones relating to the opening of trading ports (開港) in the 18th century and Korea’s late Joseon Dynasty—were so difficult that all three cohorts collectively failed them. Furthermore, some interesting discrepancies were evident, most notably a tendency for the Korean and Chinese cohorts to share similar knowledge sets that distinguished them from their Japanese counterparts. For instance 90% of Chinese and Korean students—as opposed to 20% of Japanese—knew that Busan was not the capital of Joseon-era Korea, and a similar discrepancy was also apparent in comparative knowledge of the March First Movement: Japanese students were far less likely to recognize its significance to Korean independence. On the other hand, only one third of Chinese and Korean students knew the meaning of terms such as Tokyo Trials, Showa Emperor and Russo–Japanese War; the majority of Japanese students correctly identified these terms.

These results represent an opportunity for each group of students—and their teachers—to reflect in isolation on their shortcomings in terms of knowledge of regional history. The knowledge gaps revealed by this isolated foray into the public sphere indicate areas where educators might usefully focus efforts to identify the “bare minimum of facts” required for the writing of a regional history.

One of the many topics discussed at the Beijing Women’s Conference was the Comfort Women, an issue about which new information was still emerging. Ueno Chizuko, a Japanese scholar and feminist, took part in the Conference and viewed it is an opportunity for the public sphere to deliberate on the issue free of the strictures of the state-dominated narrative (Chizuko 1999).

The Kim Dae-jung government initiated the so-called Modern History of East Asia project in 2001 in collaboration with its Japanese counterpart. As befits the public sphere, educators, scholars and NGO representatives from China, Japan and South Korea compared different understandings of the turbulent relations between the three countries during and after the end of the 19th century (TJHEC 2005). This project was intended to supplement, but not replace existing history textbooks in each country. The objective thus differed from those of normal history textbooks. Most history textbooks either recount national histories or cover specific events from a particular, nationalist perspective. The authors of the MHEA sub-textbook, by contrast, sought to provide a single unified narrative of one of the most controversial set of events in East Asian history (Hundt and Bleiker 2007: 83–6; see also Ahn 2005).

Two Cases Compared
This section contrasts two cases—the Goguryeo dispute and MHEA—to highlight the differentiated effects and potential of dialogue.

State-sanctioned actors dominated the Goguryeo–Gāogōulì dispute. The Northeast Project was one of several projects conducted under the aegis of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences early in the decade: other components of the project focused on China’s borders with Russia and Mongolia, as well as Tibet and Xinjiang. The Korean side berated China for “stealing” Korean history, and responded by establishing the Goguryeo Research Foundation (Go 2006: 112–13; Mohan 2005). In both countries, public opinion was strongly supportive of the government—but also very much separated from the “official” writing of history. In this sense the dialogue was not inclusive, as there was no means for ordinary citizens and civil society actors to provide input to the dispute.

In terms of process, the claims of China and South Korea reflected their sharply divergent views on the disputed territory’s place in their respective national histories. China claimed that Gāogōulì was but one territory that formed part of the Chinese empire. In this view, China is a multicultural nation that has readily absorbed minority peoples into a super-state. Everything within Chinese territory belongs to China, and every history that has evolved inside Chinese realms belongs exclusively to China. Consequently it was a cause for consternation for Koreans when China laid claim to not only Goguryeo but also the Gojoseon, Gando and Balhae kingdoms, which are, in the view of Koreans, integral parts of their national history (Lee 1998: 330–1; Song 2004: 95, 110). For different reasons, neither side could retreat from a position in which they had invested so much political capital.

These procedural constraints had implications for the potential for deliberation to ameliorate the differences between the two sides’ claims to the history of the disputed territory. Modern conceptions of the nation-state, which imply exclusive sovereignty over a fixed territory and a population sharing a common language or culture, were applied to events that occurred at a time when borders and sovereignty were far looser concepts (Ryuichi 2006: 406–10). It is questionable at best to apply the contemporary ideal-type conception of the nation-state to modes of political organization in the distant past, especially given that the Sino–Korean border was only formalized in its current terms early in the 20th century. As recently as the mid-19th century, the border lay in the Amnok (Yalu) and Tuman rivers, allowing a relatively free flow of people between the countries. It was only Chinese concerns about the encroachment of Russia and Japan into Manchuria that encouraged a more formal policing of the border regions (Zabrovskaya 2007: 285–6). Highly sensitive to issues of sovereignty, neither China nor South Korea was willing to countenance a thoroughgoing dialogue that could potentially weaken their status as modern nation-states.

The outcome of the Goguryeo dispute was a compromise whereby China toned down its claims to the kingdom. According to the Korean government’s account of the dispute, verbal agreement was reached in 2004 whereby China would avoid “additional distortion of interpretation of Goguryeo’s history,” and “make efforts to correct existing distortions” (MOFAT 2007). The Korean side, in the ensuing three years, monitored China’s compliance with the verbal agreement, noting efforts to remove signs and other forms of information perceived as offensive to Korea. Furthermore, China suggested that the dispute be resolved through academic exchanges, with one suggestion being that the kingdoms be considered a “shared history” (一史兩用) that both China and Korea could recollect in their own manner (Ha 2006: 12).

Another outcome was the merging of the Goguryeo Research Foundation into the Northeast Asian History Foundation (NEAHF) in 2006. And at the instigation of then-president Roh Moo-hyun, the NEAHF was charged with producing an East Asian history syllabus that would be added to Korean school curricula as an independent subject (Roh 2007: 13; see also Ahn 2006). The NEAHF invited prominent international scholars to partake in research over contentious issues in regional history (see Ha 2008).

Modern History of East Asia

The MHEA project involved a transnational editorial committee consisting of 54 academics, history teachers and researchers from China (17), Japan (14) and South Korea (23), meaning that it qualified as a truly public sphere. It resulted from an international conference in Najing in March 2002 and ended in May 2005 holding over 10 transnational meetings. The project drew on sources from all three countries, including testimony from survivors of that period. Its semi-detachment from the state resulted in the production of a textbook that included sensitive issues such as the Comfort Women, the Yasukuni Shrine and the importance of history teaching (see TJHEC 2005: 230–5). In this sense it was truly the product of a regional public sphere, providing a people’s history rather than a history retold from a statist perspective. Topics were presented in a way that encourages readers to draw their own conclusions about the significance of particular issues. Nonetheless, participants were cognizant of the responsibility placed upon them to produce a meaningful textbook. In the words of Suh Jung-seok, professor of sociology at Sungkyunkwan University and a Korean representative on the joint committee, “no matter how liberal and progressive scholars may be, in the case of Korea and Japan they couldn’t help but be concerned about the response from civil society, and China was also in a position where it had to consider issues from China’s perspective” (quoted in Ahn et al 2005).

In contrast to the discourse on Goguryeo, MHEA contains some elements of inclusion and democratic principle. Rather than a restrictive dialogue within a nationalist framework, participants from Japan, China and South Korea engaged in dialogue and exchanged opinions. That said, the exercise was not as inclusive as it might have been. For instance consideration was given to the inclusion of North Korea and the Philippines, but no agreement on the terms of their involvement was possible. Japanese participants opined that Taiwan’s inclusion was vital to understanding not only the colonial experience under Japanese rule but also the division of nation-states in the postwar period. However China, which considers Taiwan to be part of its sovereign territory and thus an internal matter, vetoed the inclusion of representatives from the island (see Ahn et al 2005). In this sense the degree of inclusiveness and democracy to which the project could aspire was limited.

In the interests of consensus, key stakeholders are granted a degree of veto power. Sungkyunkwan University’s Suh, in an interview following the completion of the textbook, argued that an emphasis on Japan’s invasion of the Asian mainland was unavoidable: “In terms of Japan’s invasion of China and its atrocities, there was detailed explanation, and it was important that this point was emphasized in a joint history textbook for the three countries. That could have been the key factor behind China’s decision to participate in the joint textbook project” (quoted in Ahn et al 2005).

In terms of deliberation, the authors of MHEA exhibited a substantial degree of rational discussion, tolerance and fairness. In part this was because they used materials from all three countries. For instance, the section on relations between Japan and its neighbors during World War II contained the following diverging points of emphasis. A Korean textbook states: “The Japanese empire not only physically plundered Koreans in this way but also forcibly enslaved them and consigned them to hard labor in mines and factories.” This account is juxtaposed with an extract from a Chinese textbook, which states: “The Japanese invaders used arms to maintain colonial control in the occupied zones. They established institutions such as a military police, a police force, courts and prisons to repress the Chinese people.” In contrast, a Japanese textbook is cited as indicating a quite different perspective: “By winning this series of wars [against Western colonial powers], Japan delivered the dream of independence to most people in Southeast Asia and India” (all quoted in TJHEC 2005: 232).

On the one hand, the input of the Chinese and Korean delegations ensured an emphasis on morality—how Japan’s invasions violated the sovereignty of other East Asian countries—while the more legalistic Japanese account emphasizes that East Asian countries did not exercise full sovereignty over their territories prior to Japan’s invasion. On the other hand, Obinata Sumio (professor of literature at Waseda University and a Japanese participant in MHEA) recollected that: “There were fierce debates between the Koreans and the Chinese… [surrounding] the ways in which to view relations between the countries from about 1880 to the Qing–Japanese War [of 1894–5]. Korea argued that not only Japan but also Qing China strongly intervened in Joseon, but China responded that that was a different type of intervention to that of Japan” (quoted in Ahn et al 2005). The project provided an opportunity for participants to put forward contentious views on such issues and attempt to reach a reasoned compromise.

A third issue that was deliberated upon was that of the victims of the war. In general the narrative took the form of Japanese aggression and Chinese–Korean victim-hood. It was commonly deemed as an insult to both Chinese and Koreans that an aggressive Japan was also a victim of the war. After an exchange of opinions and perspectives, the notion of victim-hood was relaxed to incorporate Japanese citizens too. Japanese victims included opposition politicians, anti-war activists, conscripts, Koreans living in Japan and dragooned into the armed forces, and ordinary citizens who suffered the privations of a needlessly long and expensive war. Chinese and Korean participants were encouraged to recognize that the war had deleterious implications for all countries in the region. As Obinata noted, “Only by comparing three countries or looking for connections between them is it possible to adopt an adequate viewpoint and open new horizons. In particular East Asia became a venue for war as a result of Japan’s invasions. And after the war it resulted in military tensions amidst the severe Cold War structure. Understanding this history is impossible in a history textbook with only a single national unit” (quoted in Ahn et al 2005).

The outcome of the project can be judged a success by virtue of the completion of the joint history textbook and its subsequent sales performance. In the six months following the publication of MHEA in May 2005, 60,000 copies were sold in Korea, 70,000 in Japan and 110,000 in China (Bao 2006). By contrast, just over 1,000 copies of the Japanese rightist group’s revisionist history textbook were sold in the same period. The project achieved a real conversation in which a bare minimum of facts were confirmed. More importantly, the project was a significant step towards an East Asian community (Ji 2006). It went beyond nationalist frameworks and achieved a common history of East Asia (He 2004b), and thus paved the way toward a regional approach to history from the perspective of renmin/minjung (people), not of the nation-state (guojia/kukka). This was an attempt at a regional solution via the construction of new regional identity, and was part of a wider effort by international civil society to play a role in national identity questions in East Asia (see He 2004a). Table Three summarizes the differences of two cases discussed above.

Table Three: Comparing two Cases of Dialogue




Actors (Significant role for citizens/civil society in dealing with history disputes)

Inadequate—Dialogue attached firmly to state: Northeast Project part of CASS series of studies on border regions; GRF sponsored by Korean government; pubic opinion in keeping with official position but cannot directly influence direction of debate

Substantial—NGOs and scholars represented in all delegations; thus meet criteria of being at least semi-detached from state

Process (Develop a democratic and inclusive process)

Inadequate—Little development of inclusive process, although NEAHF welcomes international scholars

Adequate—But exclusion of some potential participants (e.g. Taiwan)

Deliberation (Engage in genuine deliberation on historical issues)

Inadequate—In highly nationalist atmosphere, little potential for participants to alter position on issues

Adequate—More tolerant approach on some issues (victim-hood, sovereignty versus morality), but some still too sensitive for discussion

Outcomes (Achieve “bare minimum of facts”)

Inadequate—No agreement on minimum of facts, but shift to “shared history”? NEAHF emerges as more pluralist version of KRF

Adequate—Production of textbook, and successful sale of the textbook

Discussion: Explanatory Factors, Limits, and Dynamism
Why did the two cases discussed above emerge at precisely the same time but have such divergent outcomes? Several factors account for the different outcomes of the two cases.
Explaining difference

First, the issues mattered. MHEA, which was mainly about the war and suffering, was a collective response to the Japanese rightwing groups’ revisionist history. By contrast, Goguryeo was about the ownership of an extinct regime, which is directly related to the current territories of nation-states. Such an issue elicits the greatest degree of animosity from other countries in the region, and encounters thorny problems in achieving consensus. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect a group of people to willingly cede territories over which they have exercised ownership for a lengthy period of time purely based on competing historical claims.

Second, state-funded research on the disputed kingdom by one side invited suspicion and even hostility from the other. In China, three heads of the department of propaganda in northeast China provinces were involved in the project. And some Koreans regarded an article of Li Danglong (2003) published in Guanming Daily as “a declaration of war” (see MOFAT 2007). By contrast, civil society groups and ordinary citizens were involved in the MHEA project. For example, all Japanese participants belonged to progressive NGOs, ordinary citizens from Japan and China provided eyewitness accounts of events during the war, and some Chinese participants paid their own airfares to attend the meetings. Most participants were reflective, critical and willing to change their position and take the opinions of others seriously.

Third, the success of MHEA can be partially attributed to what Dryzek calls “semi-detachment”, whereby actors are relatively free from solely nationalist discourses and progress toward transnational civil society. MHEA also enriched the concept of semi-detachment in that (1) civil society groups took the initiative, while the states endorsed the outcome; (2) delegations from Japan, China and Korea developed complex and different relations with their governments—for instance while the government and civil society groups in Korea collaborated closely, in Japan such links were relatively loose.

Fourth, the two contrasting processes made a difference too. The nationalist insularity of Goguryeo contributed to the intensification of disputes, while the relatively democratic, deliberative and inclusive process of MHEA contributed to its success. Instead of the nationalist monopoly of discourse and the disregard for the opinion of others, MHEA took the form of a genuine, non-adversarial dialogue that dealt with difference. It was a process of genuine communication rather than insularity, and it was deliberative rather than arbitrary. The working principle was that all three parties must be treated as equals and must be willing to revise their own opinions if others put forward a compelling and valid argument. The textbook also adopted a parallel form—that is, individual section and chapters provided accounts from Japanese, Chinese and Korean sources in order to demonstrate respect for cultural equality. Such a form of history writing is unprecedented in East Asia.
The limits of dialogue

Lest we be accused of naiveté or excessive optimism, it is worth reiterating that the majority of the dialogues described in our mapping exercise did not fall in the most desirous sectors of Table Two. There are limits to the deliberative approach. First, simply bringing people together is no elixir for resolving longstanding disputes, as a deliberative forum held in Melbourne recently illustrated. The organizers sought to assemble Turks and Armenians to discuss the genocide of the Armenians in the 1920s, but the Armenian side refused to participate in the forum and offer their views as to whether a massacre occurred.

Second, in the case of MHEA, the necessity to achieve a minimum of facts resulted in the exclusion of any number of important issues. For instance, the common development of civil rights movements and democratization are not mentioned in the textbook; and the dispute over Goguryeo fell outside the textbook’s objectives. While Western and Japanese imperialism was properly scrutinized, there was no mention of other forms of power and domination in the region such as the function of US hegemony or China’s imperial power legacy with regards to its claims to Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan (ICG 2005: 13; Wasserstrom 2006: 82).

Third, in the case of Beijing’s Women Conference, Chizuko’s recollection of the Conference offers a cautionary tale about the limits of the public sphere: “When I... urged Japanese and Korean feminism to overcome national boundaries, I was confronted by vociferous protest” (1999: 145). In particular Korean (and Korean–American) participants chided Chizuko’s exhortation for them to overcome nationalism in the name of feminist or activist solidarity in the public sphere. For her Korean counterparts, nationalism was not incompatible with feminism. This reminds us that it is possible for a “contentious regional sphere” to emerge in East Asia rather than a “public sphere of regional dialogue” (Suh 2007: 383). That is, merely providing a venue for dialogue does not guarantee that all perspectives are considered, nor that a reasoned and critical account of history will be reached. It is quite possible to envisage competing nationalist imageries clashing heatedly in the public sphere.

Fourth, at both the public sphere and the state levels we expect the appeal of the maximalist interpretation of sovereignty to persist. And as long as the rising super-state of China’s remains anxious about the porous nature of its borders and about its possible encirclement by the United States and its allies, it is unlikely that state elites will ease restrictions on narratives about the sanctity of soil, borders and history. They will also resist attempts to accept what are generally perceived as domestic issues—such as the China–Taiwan rivalry, the inter-Korean conflict, and alliance relationships with the US—becoming subject to discussions about regional history. We should perhaps be thankful that the region’s numerous non-official historians have become adept at ignoring the limits placed on their freedoms.

Despite the many and varied obstacles to dialogue, our study provides some grounds for optimism. In particular it appears that movement between sectors is possible, with dialogues at one point in time creating the basis for more inclusive deliberations at later stages. Our sample of regional dialogues is too limited to ascertain direct causality, but as Table Four illustrates, at least three shifts between sectors are discernible.

Table Four: Dynamics of Dialogue


Degree of Deliberation





* Verification of the Rape of Nanking

* Northeast Project/ Gogyureo Research Foundation

* Northeast Asia History Foundation

* Yomiuri Shimbun investigation



* Shared history

* Obuchi–Kim summit

Regional Public Sphere




First, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s groundbreaking “verdict” on the Japanese wartime government was a reaction to events such as the Verification of the Rape of Nanking. Thus a dialogue in Sector 1 instigated a reaction in Sector 3. Given that the Yomiuri is a mainstream conservative newspaper, this represents a shift in Japanese consciousness about the war and its impact on the region. At the very least, it has reduced the potential support base for revisionist Japanese politicians who have sought to rehabilitate the legacy of Tojo and other war criminals. It has also bolstered moderate leaders who seek to improve ties with Korea and China.

A second, twofold movement resulted in the aftermath of the Goguryeo dispute. First, the Northeast Project and the founding of the Goguryeo Research Foundation encouraged the Korean government to establish the NEAHF, with its more pluralist remit—a shift from Sector 1 to Sector 2. As noted in this paper, the legacy of this shift is still unclear: closer examination of the new East Asian history syllabus is required. The second shift resulted from the compromise over Goguryeo’s “shared history”. This is a potentially fruitful way in which to resolve issues surrounding ancient civilizations, and as such represents a shift to Sector 5 in Table Three. However such a shift requires the Korean side to be comfortable with the notion of shared history, and any suggestion of insincerity—that China is merely waiting until a point when it is strong enough to ignore the complaints of its smaller neighbor—will strain ties once again.

A third shift—from Sector 6 to Sector 9—appears to have resulted from the Obuchi–Kim summit of 1998, which created a momentum for reconciliation that eventually resulted in the MHEA project. While much credit is apportioned to Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun for the sub-textbook, the input of Japan was crucial too. Indeed, to a great extent any shift towards a more inclusive historical narrative will require a similar spirit from the Japanese side to that which the late Prime Minister Obuchi displayed during his term in office.

This paper has proposed a deliberative approach to contested history in East Asia, and highlighted its achievements, limits and dynamic development. Through mapping and comparative testing, it has confirmed the value of deliberative approach; and the trends of dynamism towards a deliberative dialogue prove the emergence of a new politics of history through public deliberation. It can be concluded that deliberative democracy has the potential to be a truly dynamic rather than static process; and that deliberative dialogues offer some hope for a departure from nationalist mentalities and a secular shift towards a consciousness of common regional history and a common future in East Asia.

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