Thousands of Chinese rose up in protest against Japan on Sunday, hitting out at Japanese cars and businesses. It was the third such protest in seven years following clashes at sea over each country’s claim to a group of small islands.
The violent outburst of nationalism in China – echoed more quietly and peacefully among Japanese – came just days after South Korea provoked outrage in Japan over a visit by its president to disputed islands in the Sea of Japan.
To some degree, these clashes in East Asia are driven by each nation’s desire to tap the rights to seabed oil and fisheries around the islands or by weak leaders seeking to boost their standing by using patriotic anger.
But underlying the fervor over the territorial disputes are deep emotions tied to the region’s history – especially over how each country interprets that history.
Quarrels over the record of past aggression by China against Vietnam, for example, have colored how the two neighbors regard their clashes over the Paracel Islands. But it is the raw feelings over Japan’s early-20th-century aggression in Asia that creates the most worry that the string of clashes over the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu Islands in China) might result in serious military confrontation.
To peacefully resolve these island disputes will require a willingness by Asian nations, especially Japan, to agree on a historical record as well as a recognition of how much each country has sought peace and progressed in recent decades.
Germany serves as a model of a postwar nation that embraced its victims, made restitution, and showed contrition through numerous heart-felt apologies. The accuracy of its history books regarding the Nazi era – or rather the true empathy displayed by many Germans – has helped Germany become a leader of the European Union.
Japan has not gone as far as Germany in making the kinds of amends that would satisfy China or the two Koreas. And it has a strong minority that denies many of the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan.
To the country’s credit, a group of Japan scholars have worked with counterparts in China and South Korea to write a common history. One such history was issued in 2005, but it has not gained official favor in those countries.
In 2006, China and Japan officially helped launch a joint scholarly committee to find common ground on their history. The panel made some progress but faltered over details of events such as the 1937 Nanjing massacre.
South Korea and Japan have also tried to find common ground on their mutual history. But nationalism continues to be a useful political tool in both countries, much to the worry of their key military ally, the United States, that wants their help in dealing with China.
Last week, a study on US-Japan relations by two former prominent US security officials, Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, called on Japan, South Korea, as well as the US to expand the dialogue over the historical issues. It stated: “For the alliance to realize its full potential, it is essential for Japan to confront the historical issues that continue to complicate relations with [the Republic of Korea].”
Coming to terms with past atrocities need not diminish the love of one’s country – by the Japanese or any people. Behavior is a choice, not a genetic given. Current generations need not be like past ones. Acknowledging the past also opens up a willingness among others to respect a country’s efforts to embrace peace, as Japan has clearly done.
East Asia’s many island disputes, driven in large part by an emboldened China, should not lead to dangerous clashes but to solutions, such as multilateral negotiations. One path is to agree on the record of old wars and colonialism, and then leave them behind.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial referred to a visit by the South Korean prime minister. The country's president made the trip.]