Unquiet Seas of Memory

In the East China Sea, to the north of Taiwan, there lie the islands known as the Senkaku in Japanese, the Diaoyu in Chinese. The recent focus of the world’s media are on these nearly uninhabited escarpments of rocks, lying in waters potentially containing oceanic resources desirable to both countries, and claimed by both under the salient points of international laws governing territorial waters. In the strategic axis of Japan, China, and Taiwan, the islands are the centre of a complex dispute showcasing the naval expansion of the Chinese, and a more assertive Japanese maritime strategy, supported by the United States preparing its strategic “pivot” to focus military and diplomatic forces on the Asia-Pacific in a strategy of containment and counteraction.

What is at stake in the dispute is not particularly the islands themselves, mostly uninhabited and lying near resource deposits which are still relatively unknown in scale, though evidently understood by the Chinese and Japanese governments to be modest. In both countries however domestic politics have a large role to play. Assertiveness, credibility, and deterrence are understood to be a stake as both sides make moves to ramp up naval and hybrid capabilities, and the dynamics of China’s peaceful rise and Japan’s interests in the 21st century are tied to each other by strong economic interdependence, affirmed by both governments.The respective populations of both countries have a further complicating dynamic tying them to their regional neighbors and rivals. That tie is history.

The major focus of the last five to ten years or so in Asia has been on the relative strength that the post-Mao, economically developing, and the increasingly diplomatically savvy People’s Republic has been refining into their ‘peaceful rise’. Interspersed with this has been the continued outrage expressed in many East Asian nations over the domestic and international treatment of Japan’s history in Asia over the last century and then some, growing ever more distant, but still very sore. In Japan, China, Korea, and other countries, nationalists, ultra-nationalists, liberals, and apologists make new examinations, conclusions, and complaints over the complicated picture of Asian politics from the mid-19th century onward.

Japanese expansionism, overrunning the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and deep into northern, central, and southern China from the coast, was marked by a imperial occupation with less than savory consequences for the populations they occupied. From the publication of Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking in 1997 to the ongoing mass demonstrations in both countries, the continuing backlash of historical evaluations of Japanese reparations, culpability, and the extent to which those should argue for contemporary cooperation or conflict has coloured the national agendas of politicians, governments, and the peoples they govern.

Recognition of the extent and nature of the expansion and occupation has been the battleground of East Asian cultural diplomacy and the rallying cry of mass domestic political exercise for the last 70 years, and will likely continue to be so as the economic and influential soft power of these states grow hand in hand with their hard capabilities in ships, men, and missiles. If anything, the pressure of the situation may point the rhetoric further, not helped by the recent visit of PM Abe to a controversial Japanese military shrine or the protests made by Chinese and Korean writers about the treatment of the events and what they view as omissions within Japanese textbooks. These go beyond the mere academic search for truth and diplomatic questions of propriety; these are weapons in a kind of battle that influences domestic choices that could bring an overtly and agressive military option into popularity and demand in governments.

Regional enmity and historical grievances are powerful actors indeed in the sphere of the national ethos, the voting and activist public, and the popularity of policies and governments. But the viability of the passionate response of memory among the whole of populations must fade as the events grow distant and the cognitive dissonance of generations breaks the narrative of personality and active connection to the events. I’m not personally geared to see any Mexican I meet as my potential murderer on the basis of what Pancho Villa did in southern Texas around the same time Japan was tightening its imperial grip on Korea.

While oral historians and journalists like to focus on the particulars of personal experience, these are on the whole rather fleeting and sporadic voices, ultimately mortal like their owners. If they reflect harm, they reflect often merely personal slights in the horror of war; no less horrific for that, but limited by the intimate and local purview that the civilian or common soldier usually has. The monster of war and subjection is a thousand little tragedies enacted simultaneously, and time erases the actors and their words from the conscious of all but the most pedantic audience. What remains are the stories bound to narratives, collectively held, prepared, and increasingly politicized.

Time may kill the lines as they were spoken, but it also enshrines the old perceptions in various ways, making them hard to root out of tradition, stereotypes, and the odd historical truism that seems to stay when all else from childhood education has been washed from the mind (‘Never invade Russia in the Winter’ being the one I seem to hear most often). It is these lingering points that take on new and powerful significance when the times and the assumptions shift, and humans need to address and rationalize a new challenge by an old experience. This is held by the shared holding of historical memory as ingrained in books, folk wisdom, oral histories, movies, plays, and comics. Communities under stress, prolonged and existential in nature, have memory as a tool of cohesion and coordination, and it forms around narratives and creates new ones that often dictate goals, ideals, and values for the short term.

And as the struggle to redefine the balances in Asia while viewing the new power centres of economic, diplomatic, and military power and influence, the importance of the history of the past century and a half needs to be debated frequently and openly. It seems in many cases like rubbing salt in old wounds, to be driving a wedge between populations. Yet, the narrative needs to be challenged regularly and from a variety of sources, and we need to be conscious of challenging historical norms and thinking beyond the mere hard numbers of history.

This is not to deny that we must strive for objective and empirically-demonstrated fact in studying Asia’s history. But there needs to be a reexamining of the reasoning and the rationalization within the historical record when it plays so strongly into domestic tensions, and sometimes this requires coming into grips with uncomfortable historical opinions and options that do not always play well to narrative forms either in a nationalist or a liberal form. A full range of interpretation and argument is the end goal, with the potential to create nuanced narratives, ones that can stress moments of cooperation as well as conflict, allowing for the leaders and populations of both countries to have a better wealth of collective memory.

People may not wholly accept revision and reinterpretation, but even the mere suggestion does allow for a necessary degree of slight empathy and understanding to be made with your neighbors and your fellow citizens. Even if it changes very little in the overall narrative, the mere suggestion allows for doubts, questioning, and the formation of alternatives. And when one is discussing the prospect of a new state-on-state war, alternatives are highly desirable to all but the most deterministic idealist and those blind to the consequences of a war threatening the stability of the entire globe over uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea.

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