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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

China, Japan, Korea

For John, BLUFOur history empowers us, but it also sometimes holds us back.  Nothing to see here; just move along.

The relationships amongst the nations in the Far East are complicated.  One might think that Japan and Korea would be united against China, considering how China tries to bully the two, but it is more complicated than that, and we haven't even mentioned Viet-nam or other nations, such as Russia and India.

Over at Small Wars Journal we have an article by Colonel David Hunter-Chester, an assistant professor of strategy and operations at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, out in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  A retired U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer, he has a Ph.D. in East Asian History from the University of Kansas, and he has lived in or studied East Asia for more than 30 years.  The article title tells a story in itself, It’s Not History, East Asia, It’s the Stories We Tell

Below are the first four paragraphs, and without the footnotes:

People do not live in history, they live in the narrative.  I wish I could find the name of the scholar who made this observation and the original source, but even in the age of Google both elude me.  Regardless of its origin, nowhere is this truth more evident than between three countries in East Asia.  Two of those countries, Japan and the Republic of Korea (RoK), by dint of shared values, national interests and sheer geostrategic necessity, are natural allies.  The third country, China, actively seeks to change the international status quo in the region, a status quo which has ushered in more than 60 years of peace and prosperity for millions. As two countries who have benefited so much from this long peace, China’s incremental, “probing and nibbling strategy” to change that status quo should be pushing Japan and Korea closer together. Instead each calls on the other to acknowledge the facts of history.  For China, as well, this prolonged peace has resulted in moving more people from absolute poverty to better living standards than anywhere else in history.  Yet China, pushing this change for domestic and strategic reasons, instead of working to maintain a system that has benefited so many for so long, uses a call for acknowledging correct history to rationalize its actions, and deflect attention from its actions.  While all three countries call for a correct view of history, the problem is not history, but narrative.

Japan’s narrative is centered on Japan as the real victim in World War II.  According to this narrative Japan, the only country ever to be attacked by atomic weapons, had only been trying to free Asia from Western domination, and it has been repaid with fire, death and calumny. According to this storyline, the Tokyo War Crimes trials were the worst kind of victor’s justice.  Japan loves peace more than other countries; this tale goes, as evidenced by the war-renouncing Article Nine in its constitution.

Korea’s narrative of victimization goes back even further.  A shrimp between whales, the Korean peninsula has often been invaded and occupied by its larger neighbors.  Independence Hall, outside of Seoul, emphasizes this narrative with paintings, plaques and full-size wax-figure reproductions.  While numerous invasions from China are memorialized, the most prominent depredations are the depictions of torture and oppression meted out by the Japanese during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, from 1905 to 1945.

In China the story is about the Middle Kingdom’s century of humiliation, beginning with the first Opium War in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, 1949.  Slicing up the Chinese melon with the Unequal Treaty System and doling out the humiliation was the West, and its proxy, Japan.  Here, again, Japan’s brutality, beginning in 1931 in Manchuria and extending to the rest of China in 1936, is singled out as particularly brutal and venal.

If we could only move past history.

Regards  —  Cliff

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