Written by Gi-Wook Shin.

In a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in May 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-hye contended, “Asia suffers from what I call ‘the Asian paradox,’ the disconnect between growing economic interdependence on the one hand, and backward political, security cooperation on the other.” This is, she noted, because “differences stemming from history are widening” and “how we manage this paradox” will determine the configuration of a new order in Asia.

Pessimists worry that colonial and wartime history problems will persist and that there is not much we can do about it. On the other hand, optimists believe that history issues will inevitably fade away over time as the wartime generation passes away and the countries of the region become increasingly integrated economically and culturally.

Only time can tell us which view is correct. But we cannot rely on time alone to heal these wounds and need to be cautious about unwarranted optimism regarding regional cooperation. We see the continuing power of “identity politics” in the nations of Northeast Asia, and recent transformations of historical memory show worrisome tendencies in South Korea, Japan and China. Certainly, Northeast Asian nations have been democratizing and/or promoting regionalism and globalization in recent decades, but none has uprooted or weakened the power of nationalism in the region. On the contrary, these changes may produce a crisis of national identity, strengthening nationalist sentiment in some quarters.

In Korea, nationalism has long guided the approach to the issue of historical injustice. Nationalism has produced master narratives of colonial history and offered a dominant framework for dealing with historical injustices such as comfort women and forced labor. It forces issues to be framed in a binary opposition—victims versus aggressors—and allows little room for gray areas, making it difficult to formulate a shared view of historical injustice. Ironically, the racism or nationalism that gave rise to historical injustice in the first place continues to inform victims’ approaches to reckoning with past wrongs. Disputes over the history of the ancient kingdom of Koguryŏ (Gaogouli in Chinese) reflect “irredentism” on the part of South Korea as well as China’s rising nationalism.

In Japan, uncertainties and anxieties created by the post-Cold War security environment and years of economic stagnation provided a fertile ground for easy and extreme answers in the form of nationalist politics. Nationalist scholars are making headway in producing textbooks to “make Japanese proud of themselves,” and nationalism is a prevailing theme in the military history museum attached to the Yasukuni Shrine, which Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe visited during their tenure despite outcries from neighbours and against the concerns of many Japanese. The restoration of symbols such as the flag and national anthem are part of Japan’s quest to become a “normal nation.” If there is any difference between South Korea and Japan, it is that the left in South Korea—as opposed to the right in Japan—is at the forefront of nationalist politics of the history question.

In China, too, political leaders are promoting nationalism (or patriotism in their own words) to bolster social and political cohesion. Beijing needs a new unifying force to mobilize the nation in the face of the rapid (and disruptive) processes of socioeconomic modernization. In particular, in the post-Tiananmen era, the Chinese leadership appealed to nationalism to shore up its tainted legitimacy. China’s policy toward its minorities is based on the notion of a grand multi-ethnically unified China. History activists appeal to nationalist sentiments by commemorating Chinese suffering during the Japanese occupation, and nationalism is the force behind China’s territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors as well as the straits relations.

Thus, despite increased intra-Asian trade, cultural exchange, and talks about an East Asian community, Korea, Japan, and China all still find politics of national identity appealing. After all, nationalism not only is about ideology but also thrives on narrowly defined “national interests.” Disputed territories always serve as symbols of national sovereignty that cannot be compromised. The mutual suspicion of Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and other territorial waters, and the Korean-Japanese tensions over Dokdo/Takeshima, are but two potent reminders.

History education reinforces nationalist sentiments in Northeast Asia. In both Japan and South Korea, the Ministry of Education requires that all textbooks undergo a strict screening process, and in China, the government plays an even stronger role in history textbook writings. In all three, nationalism is the guiding principle of official historical narratives, as they are obsessed with writing national history based on a single historical memory that stresses their struggles with outside aggression. In China, for instance, a new history textbook offers a significantly altered view of the wartime period in line with the Patriotic Education Campaign that began in the 1990s. Because history textbooks affect national identity, the politics of nationalism invariably influence their writing, which in turn promotes nationalist sentiments in the new generation.

Thus, the key challenge facing Northeast Asia is how to tame the power of nationalism while promoting vibrant civil society with global thinking as well as regional cooperation. Also, while some expect generational change and increasing people-to-people exchanges to heal wounds from the past, the picture seems mixed. In China and South Korea, surveys among the countries’ youth regularly register a highly negative view of Japan over history issues. It may be true that the passing of the war generations will end some of the vivid, bitter animosities. On the other hand, the importance that second and third generations attach to past issues and how they perceive them are not only a result of time, but also a reflection of the historical knowledge they acquire through education, museums, films and other media.

When issues of the past posed a stumbling block in ameliorating relations between China and Japan in the 1970s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said, “Because our generation is not wise enough to resolve all of the pending questions, let’s leave the unsettled ones to next generation.” Contrary to his expectations, however, the two countries are stricken today with a worse situation involving history and territorial disputes, and the younger generation tends to be even more swayed by the fever of nationalism.

Now is a moment of danger and opportunity for Northeast Asia. The current impasse in regional relations demands a commitment to confront the corrosive nationalism fed by the unresolved issues of history. Disregarding or ignoring an unfortunate past means not only evasion of historical accountability but also a missed opportunity to learn from history. Germany’s failure to learn from its defeat in the First World War led to the rise of Nazism and another world war. The German experience should provide a valuable lesson for all, especially Japan, as they struggle to deal with the growing power of nationalism and identity politics.

Gi-Wook Shin is Professor of Sociology at Stanford University. Image credir: CC by  dconvertini/Flickr.