As President Obama prepares for his trip to Asia in two weeks, tensions are remarkably high in a part of the world that was supposed to be smart enough to focus on getting rich even as the Middle East remained bogged down in conflict. Although much of the problem originates in China, American allies sometimes play a role too—including the government of Shinzo Abe in Japan. His visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo are one big reason. Mr. Obama, like other American officials, will probably ask him to desist from future visits when the two heads of government meet in Tokyo. But in fact, Obama should concentrate on a more realistic agenda—asking Abe to redefine and transform the shrine, rather than stop visiting it.
The wounds of history are profound in East Asia. Simple repetition of the official Japanese apology first articulated by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in August 1995 will not suffice to promote historical reconciliation. And as Abe demonstrated by his visit to Yasukuni in December 2013, Japanese political leaders like their counterparts in other countries naturally feel compelled to honor their country’s war dead. The Yasukuni Shrine memorializes millions of rank-and-file Japanese soldiers who died for their country, not just the fourteen Japanese leaders who were convicted of “Class A” war crimes or who died while on trial for such crimes.
If Prime Minister Abe or his successors want to visit Yasukuni in the future, it should be a transformed shrine. The Yasukuni grounds currently contain a military museum that downplays Japanese aggression and ignores Japan’s war responsibility. An exhibition with such a distorted view of Japan’s past does not belong at a solemn shrine that should be primarily about remembering the sacrifice of ordinary Japanese soldiers. In addition to closing down this military museum, the Yasukuni Shrine should find a creative way to remove the names of the Class A war criminals from among the millions who are memorialized. This option was indeed proposed by a leading political patron of Yasukuni in 2007 and even by then prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone after his controversial visit to the shrine in 1985. When Emperor Hirohito learned of the enshrinement of the Class-A war criminals in 1978, he was reportedly so angry that he refused to visit Yasukuni again. If Japanese patriots want to honor their war dead, the best way to do so is to transform Yasukuni so that the Japanese emperor can once again visit the shrine, as was frequently done before 1978, without stirring international controversy.
As contentious as Yasukuni is, this shrine is far from the only issue preventing the healing of historical wounds. Many matters require attention, from the issue of “comfort women,” to the name of the Sea of Japan (which Korean Americans in Virginia are now contesting), to the way Chinese and Koreans teach their own people about the Japanese (verging at times on demonization, despite Japan’s peaceful foreign policy after World War II and its efforts to atone for its militarist past).
Since the late 1990s, scholars from the three nations have engaged in both official and unofficial dialogues and research regarding history. Now is time to deepen and broaden the effort. What matters most, for the future, is how citizens in one country are taught about the other nations. This process begins in school but goes well beyond it.
Scholars and opinion leaders in Japan, China, and Korea should avoid mutual recriminations and work toward a shared history. To encourage this process, Japan can take the lead by dramatically expanding the activities of the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records. This center was established because of a 1994 initiative by Prime Minister Murayama who wanted “to enable everyone to face squarely the facts of history.” In addition to serving as an archive for historical documents, the center should sponsor exchange and dialogue programs among scholars, educators, journalists and youth in all three countries regarding history and memory. The ultimate aim should be to get balanced and historically accurate views into multiple media so that, throughout their lives, current and future Koreans, Chinese and Japanese learn about each other—warts and all, to be sure, but in a way that avoids scapegoating, ethnic divisiveness, and warmongering.
Americans can also foster historical reconciliation, but it should not do so in a sanctimonious manner because the United States too contributed to Northeast Asia’s tragic history. The best way would be for Americans to become a full partner in transnational dialogues about history with Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese and to emphasize that reconciliation is a two-way street and an ongoing long-term process.
Although states and their leaders can and should establish a diplomatic environment conducive for a reconciliation process to take hold, deep-rooted attitudes of these countries’ citizens are, at present, arguably the greatest potential catalysts to conflict. We need to make them work for peace, not against it. The stability of Northeast Asia in coming years could hang in the balance.
This opinion was originally published in The National Interest.