My Take

Burden of history weighs on all of us - just take a look at Japan and China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 February, 2014, 3:54am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 February, 2014, 3:54am

Japan, as Shinzo Abe has said, wants to be a "normal" nation. China, with Xi Jinping forever exhorting "the China dream", also wants to become "normal". Here lies the root of one of the intractable conflicts in the region.

Both leaders want to shed the historical baggage that their countries carry with them. In doing so, they are making it worse. They just show we are as much the playthings of history as those war-torn peoples in the Balkans and the Middle East we pity. We have done that Deng Xiaoping thing, which was to forget and overlook, and let future generations worry about it. That didn't work out; things still come to a head. Both Xi and Abe are fierce nationalists. They are, as Time Asia editor Zoher Abdoolcarim said on RTHK recently, true believers, and that's the scary part.

Part of being "normal" for both leaders means having their countries develop the kind of military that is commensurate with their economic status and geopolitical importance in the region. For Abe, it means amending Japan's pacifist constitution and buildingreal army, not that its current military capabilities are anything to laugh at. For Xi and the Communist Party, it means modernising the army to challenge the US and its allies in the region.

Unlike post-war Germany, Japan accepted defeat, but not guilt. As US historian John Dower wrote in Embracing Defeat, the single best book on post-war Japan I have read, surrender and defeat affected Japanese society and culture at all levels and coloured its subsequent recovery and resurgence. But guilt was far more ambivalent. After all, the Japanese experienced enormous suffering and sacrifice that were comparable to the agonies of the neighbouring nations they invaded. They had to "endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable", as their emperor told them, after being the only people to have been nuked not once but twice.

To become normal means for many Japanese nationalists to be free of war guilt,while for the rest of Asia, it's for them to acknowledge and apologise for it. For the Chinese communist leaders, it means becoming rich and strong under their rule while papering over the horrific costs they have imposed on the Chinese people.