One recent weekend, I sat with a group of about 35 people - Koreans, Chinese, Eurasians, Russians and Japanese - who had gathered for a unique event on the campus of Tokyo's International Christian University (ICU). Their backgrounds were diverse - university students, scholars, civil-society activists and representatives of Japan's indigenous Ainu people. They had come together to 'share narratives and map history', in a programme organised by Jacqueline Wasilewski, a professor of intercultural communications at ICU.
Professor Wasilewski is a specialist in addressing complex issues through structured discussions. She and her colleagues had pondered the troubled history of Northeast Asia, where invasions and wars have left a legacy of bitterness. About a year ago, they decided to tackle the region's lingering ill-will by addressing different perspectives of history and culture.
'At a popular level there seems to be no mutual perception of regional history,' said Professor Wasilewski. 'So the long-term goal is to hold these dialogues in various venues so that eventually there might be an international day of reconciliation in the region.' This month's discussion was the second such Northeast Asian Dialogue Forum. Participants spoke for 20 minutes each, relating the history they had learned from family and relatives, school texts and teachers, books and the media. Predictably, the narratives were often coloured with emotion, sometimes with resentment.
One South Korean student explained why many Koreans dislike Japan but like its pop culture. An old Japanese man collapsed in tears, asking her if her parents had suffered from Japanese aggression in decades past. He described the many years he had spent in North Korea during the second world war, coming to love his Korean friends and that nation's culture.
A young Chinese woman from Dalian , Liaoning province , said she was upset by the historical perception, or the lack of it, among her Japanese friends.
The participants neither discussed nor judged what they heard, and as the hours passed, a new spirit of communion seemed to overcome differences. By the time they had created colourful charts of their narratives, towards the closing of the forum, they were sounding like family members, sharing hopes for the future. I was reminded of a similar process at a three-day reconciliation camp for Palestinian and Israeli teenagers that I heard of many years ago.
Yuu Tagawa, an ICU graduate, distributed at the forum her illustrated image of the 'three keys for enjoying cultural boundary-crossing': patience, bravery and curiosity. Such keys may indeed open doors to a more hopeful future.