Kazuhiko Togo: Japan’s Historical Memory ... Reconciliation with Asia

[Kazuhiko Togo is the author of Rekishi to Gaiko: Yasukuni-Ajia-Tokyosaiban (History and Foreign Policy: Yasukuni-Asia-The Tokyo Tribunal) (Kodansha 2008). He retired from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2002.]

... [C]an Japan continue to seek harmonization of its own memory with history, while achieving reconciliation with Asia simultaneously? This is again a very difficult question about which I do not have a definite answer. But I can outline the relevant circumstances and indicate that further strengthening of the centrists’ position on historical memory may lead to, or at least be compatible with, reconciliation with Asia.

First, it is axiomatic to say that “apology is a one-way action, whereas reconciliation requires a two-sided action. You apologize because you think your actions were wrong. You do not apologize on the condition that the apology be accepted.” [5] Keeping the centrist position strong is partly based on the hope that this may be helpful to achieve reconciliation, but that does not mean that Japan is in a position to enforce reconciliation. China and Korea might have reasons to accept or refuse reconciliation depending on their national memory and national interests. Should an apology not immediately result in reconciliation, this should be well understood right from the beginning.
Second, China and Korea have a clear policy option in dealing with the apology-backlash situation in Japan. If China and Korea find it in their own interest to fuel anger against Japan’s backlash, they may, of course, do so. But by responding emotionally against the backlash in Japan, they risk fueling another backlash in Japan. Political relations between Japan and that country would inevitably deteriorate. Would China or Korea invariably react emotionally against a Japanese backlash? Not necessarily. The latest response by the Chinese and Korean governments to the Tamogami’s incident could be considered reasonably contained, taking into consideration Aso’s swift decision to relieve Tamogami of his official duties. Had the Chinese or Korean government wanted to fuel nationalist emotions, Tamogami could have given ample reason to point to him as a symbol of Japan’s growing non-apologetic behavior. This did not happen. This may leave some hope that even if a nationalist backlash occurred in the future against a strengthened centralist position, China and Korea’s reactions could remain reasonably contained.

Third, consolidation of the centrist position is certainly compatible with other measures which would help to enhance reconciliation, as suggested by Lind. One of the clearest examples is recently begun by countries in Northeast Asia to improve mutual understanding on history textbooks. [6] Joint study and publication of history textbooks is a significant step toward reconciliation. It must not, and it cannot, start with the objective to achieve a common textbook. But it certainly should be able to compare how textbooks differ from one country to another and discuss why these differences emerge. A third party can be usefully involved. The latest project of comparing history textbooks published in Japan, China, Korea, the U.S., and Taiwan at Stanford University is one of the best examples.


The central theme of my new book is to urge Japanese society that the time has come to overcome the sharp split between the right and the left and develop a synthetic and centrist position on historical memory. What I wanted to convey is a message which I have developed in the course of my own trajectory (in spending six years abroad). Has not the time come to end Japan’s drift on historical memory for 60 years and terminate the harsh split between the right and the left? Differences of views would not be discontinued, but is there not a way to overcome them and respect each other as Japanese and find a broad consensus on an all-Japan basis? [7]

If so, how can we realistically achieve it? As Lind argues, part of the answer derives from Japan’s domestic situation and the surrounding international situation. But in order to achieve that centrist position, I also urge that all Japanese become more interested in history, that individually they read writings from the left and the right and that each develops his/her own perspective on historical memory. I have learned much by reading narratives from both the right and the left. I believe in the strength of reason. If everyone has the opportunity to consider diverging views, ultimately, as individuals and as a nation, there should be a way to reach a synthetic position.

It is my earnest hope that through the consolidation of these non-extremist centrist positions, Japan would find a way to depoliticize historical memory issues in relation to China and Korea and, ultimately, achieve reconciliation with Asia. There is also the issue of historical memory in relation to the U.S., but that is a subject best dealt with in a separate article.

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