Historical Reconciliation in East Asia: How Optimistic Should We Be?

In a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel invites young men and women from China, Japan and South Korea to discuss national guilt and historical reconciliation. The conversation begins with factual questions concerning, for example, the nature of Japan’s past imperial expansion and the sincerity of the Japanese government’s post-war apologies. It then moves on to issues of philosophical nature, such as whether the present generation is responsible for a wrong committed by a past generation. Listening to the programme, one gets the impression that the conversation was overall a fruitful one; it did not result in an important agreement, but some elementary misunderstanding and prejudices were removed, and the participants treated each other respectfully throughout. The host himself concluded by expressing the ‘hope that one day, soon, you will be able to draw upon the spirit of honesty and reflectiveness [....] to build a deeper mutual understanding among these three countries and by doing so help make this world a better place’.


This is a nice way to bring the forty-minute conversation to a close, but I doubt Sandel is as optimistic as he portrayed himself. The reason for saying this is that he (like myself) must have taken part in similar discussions in the past to see how repetitive they tend to be. One can be fairly optimistic if one sees one single time people with conflicting convictions talking to each other to move towards reconciliation. But one cannot be so optimistic if one repeatedly sees similar conversations to realise that the small progress made on each occasion hardly amounts to a cumulative difference on a larger scale. Considering the target audience of the programme, the host is wise to present the episode as a one-time event and conclude it with a corresponding, optimistic note. Having observed and occasionally participated in similar discussions over the past dozen years, however, I cannot share the Harvard professor’s hope for an imminent mutual understanding among the Chinese, the Japanese and the South Koreas. Nor do I believe that Sandel, a frequent visitor to the region as well as a learned scholar, literally meant what he said to conclude the episode.


The repetitiveness, however, does not need to disappoint. On the contrary, it is remarkable that the 2014 conversation scarcely differs from those in the recent past in terms of both mood and substance, while the tension in East Asia has significantly increased. Here, it may be worth recalling the Newsnight episode earlier this year, in which China’s and Japan’s ambassadors to the UK could not even sit in the same room and ended up in blaming each other from behind a wall. Contrast this to the ordinary young men and women that appeared on the Public Philosopher; unlike the ambassadors, they engaged with each other respectfully and face to face, as their predecessors had when the regional tension had been lower. This gives hope, for failing to reach a genuine mutual understanding is not nearly as bad as ceasing to try. I say this with some sadness, knowing Indian summers before the region entered the current diplomatic frost. To end this, we need more than small-scale conversations such as the one that Sandel hosted. But these are worth repeating, not least because they help avoid black smoke filling the sky while we await a thaw.


A version of this piece originally appeared on Practical Ethics.

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Comment by Valentine Olushola Oyedipe on July 1, 2014 at 3:13pm

Yes, I quite agree that hope has been reinvigorated and failing to reach a genuine mutual understanding is not nearly as bad as the cessation of the attempt.That said. In any case, our approach to reconciliation, healing and mending strained diplomatic ties with a particular emphasis on East Asia should not be limited to the realistic realm of philosophical approach. Rather, if not all, there should be an iota of idealism which is the very optimistic trait/energy of the spirit man (humanity). I may tend to go naked and theological here as this position is consequent upon the very nature of phenomenon peace in its holism and given the spiritual dimension to it. At any rate, our faith as found expression in our optimism should be able to garner much spiritual energies to mitigate the current diplomatic frost in East Asia  as series of pragmatic attempts have  successively failed as earlier alluded to in his piece.Therefore, we must be highly  optimistic to garner the much desired energies in respect of the historical reconciliation in East Asia which is a moral obligation of all religious faithfuls world over.And at the same time, we must not lose focus and relent in our pragmatic/realistic approach as the duo are mutually reinforcing in the bid to foster peace in the region.

Comment by Al LeBlanc on June 26, 2014 at 8:53am

Kei & Evan:  Most interesting observations/comments.  Older Generations have visceral memories of Japanese Occupation of China, Korea and Pearl Harbor/ WW2/PacificBattles and DeathMarches/Prisoner Treatment.  As a Korean War Vet, I my childhood memories of the WW2 movie newsreels of war with Japan and Germany are still vivid, including the Holocaust.The Younger generations is further removed from these historical events as my generation was from WWI. However, IMO, Japanese Political Leaders should not inflame these bitter memories.

Comment by Kei Hiruta on June 5, 2014 at 7:31pm

Thanks, Evan. I might be too pessimistic but I doubt your suggestion would work. Take any country in the world and imagine you randomly pick 100 citizens. What would they look like? Would they all be like the participants in the Public Philosopher? I doubt it. I think they would include at least one or two malign nationalists, who may well be willing to ignore national interest in order to intimidate neighbouring nations. We might get lucky if the jury consists of 12 people, but if we proved unlucky the damage would be considerable.

Comment by Evan O'Neil on June 5, 2014 at 10:45am

Perhaps international relations would be better served if instead of diplomats each nation dispatched a "jury" of citizen delegates, an ethical hive mind of consensus, not a lone representative of narrowly conceived national interest.

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