The Long Life of East Asians Ghosts

Ian Buruma on Nationalism and Unsolved Questions of Asia’s Past

The Second World War ended 70 years ago, but still casts a long shadow, especially in Asia, where unresolved questions of war guilt and crimes are still threatening political stability. Against this backdrop, the Bertelsmann Stiftung organized a lecture by Ian Buruma, bestselling author and professor for human rights, journalism and democracy at Bard College in New York, titled “The long life of East Asian ghosts, on August 31st in Berlin as part of its “Asia Briefings” series. Unlike in Europe, East Asian countries have not yet reached a politically accepted consensus on the atrocities of the Second World War. Instead, history is being used as an instrument of national – and mostly nationalistic – politics. Asia’s rulers, according to Buruma, do not care about historical truth, but instead “use history to legitimize the political status quo”.

The most dangerous conflict lines in this context exist between Japan and China, South Korea and the USA. The rise of China has started to challenge the balance of power in Asia, a balance mainly based on the supremacy of the USA („Pax Americana“), created in the aftermath of the Second World War. As Buruma explained, Asian countries today are vying for power and influence, using historical arguments to legitimize their claims.

In Japan, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to change the constitution dictated by the USA after the Second World War, which renounces Japan’s right to wage a war and confines Japan to having a purely defensive military. According to Buruma, Abe caters to the conservative electorate, which by and large has perceived the post-war order as national humiliation. He willingly accepts open conflict with Japan’s neighbors China and South Korea, who blame Japan for not owning up to the atrocities committed by its military during the war.

For the Chinese government, this confrontational course is not entirely unwelcome. Since China’s opening up in the 1980s, the Communist Party has derived its legitimacy less and less from socialist and Maoist ideology. Instead it has started to promote a new form of Chinese nationalism. This nationalism is mainly based on the idea of China’s historical greatness and the “century of humiliation” with the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War presenting the most humiliating moment.

South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye is using history to legitimize her government as well. Ian Buruma sees her criticism of Japan as an attempt to show personal independence: Park is the daughter of former President and father of the South Korean economic miracle Park Chung-hee, who served as officer in the Japanese army. Distancing herself from Japan helps the conservative President Park strengthening her internal political position, especially vis-à-vis left-wing politicians.

According to Buruma, how these conflicts will develop mainly depends on the ability of the US to act as buffer between the Asian countries involved. An organization of Asian countries under Japanese leadership, akin to NATO, would be a possible new approach to Asian security without US hegemony, according to him. Such a new beginning is, however, only possible when the ghosts of the past stop haunting.