I was thinking about whether to even attempt a contribution to the latest symposium on the role of historical animosities — and their appeasement — in present political tensions when a holiday happened: Passover, the Jewish celebration of the Exodus from Egypt. On the first evening, we celebrate the Seder — literally “order” — a process of remembrance and celebration. But there are elements of sadness: in the midst of telling the story, we spill wine from our cups in honor of the plague-suffering of the Egyptians. Before the Seder even begins, first-born Jews refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise, in remembrance of the first-born Egyptians slain in the final plague. It’s an odd practice, historically, nearly unprecedented: a deliberate rehumanization of “the enemy” enshrined at the heart of what is, arguably, the most centrally Jewish celebration of the ritual year.
I’m not entirely sure that it helps, since there never was an historical reconiciliation between the ancient Israelites and the Pharonic Egyptians.1 But I think it is an important “Zeroth” condition to add to Valérie Rosoux’s Four Conditions:
- “The first is that the moment must be right; the parties must be ready to take on this task. This implies that they perceive themselves to be in a mutually hurtful stalemate and that they envisage the possibility of a way out.”
- “A process of rapprochement can only be undertaken if all parties perceive the effort to be necessary and profitable. Former belligerents will only try to commit themselves if they believe that such an attitude directly serves their national interests.”
- “The representatives of each party must of course be skilled negotiators – i.e. they must be flexible, sensitive, imaginative, patient, and tenacious. But in addition to these qualities, they must have support among their respective populations.”
- “Without political support ‘from above’, the efforts of some individuals and/or groups will not be sufficient to influence the whole population and to give clear signals to the other party. Conversely, without the support of the population, modifications brought to official memory are sterile and vain.”
Using these standards, it seems painfully clear that Japan has an immense distance before it can even credibly begin an historical reconciliation with its WWII and colonial-era victims. For that matter, I wonder whether this model applies: the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation seems to stem from the concept of sin, which is largely absent in the Asian religious and metaphysical traditions. There are narratives of atonement, but they usually involve extraordinary self-sacrifice2 and aren’t really transactions between equals.
As evidence, I offer a sampling of news stories from my collection — stories that I bookmarked because I thought they might be worth blogging at some point, but never quite got around to. Some of these are a year old — these are difficult, but perennial, issues, and hard to spend a lot of time on without getting gloomy. I already deal with them in class on a regular basis: I’m doing the war crimes and legacies of WWII in my World History class on Tuesday, and we’ve been discussing the long-term effects of the Cultural Revolution on the Chinese national psyche3 in my 20c China class. What these articles say to me, over and over again, is that there isn’t a lot of progress being made, that things aren’t changing. There was a lot of damage done over the last century, on all sides. That’s sad, but — other than a committment to historical realism, honesty and clarity — I don’t know what more I can do.
- The first thing in my queue is not a news story, but Konrad Lawson’s discussion of Korean memories of Japanese colonialism, an excellent meditation which raises historical, pedagogical, and ethical questions. Here’s another piece on echoes of the colonial past in South Korea. Also, No Gun Ri massacre more likely intentional.
- Attempts to create joint histories foundering.
- From NPR, a haiku poet in the relocation camps, making art out of trauma. Japanese Canadians shared much of the American experience.
- Japanese historian Yoshimi Yoshiaki has been getting press for honest research on comfort women, and Chinese activists are still finding new evidence. Congressional pressure may not be helping. Australians are cutting through their own memory shrouds as well.
- The Battle of Okinawa is another sticking point. Japanese historians and Okinawans are pushing for an honest accounting of the Japanese military’s actions and, if memory serves, a Japanese court has granted them some relief.
- The Japanese government is witholding documentation on post-war treaties. Japanese lawmakers are still coming to light.
- Some hope? Glorification of suicide squads prompts some anti-war commentary.
Grand conclusions? No: it’s a process. But is it even a process at this point, when there seems to be so much at stake in keeping the wounds open and festering and so little advantage to bridging the gaps?
P.S. For a more detailed comparative look at historical atrocities and memory reconciliation, see Mark Selden
- Then there’s the question of the historicity of the biblical narrative…. [↩]
- up to and including pentitential suicide [↩]
- I actually hate talking about “national psyche” because it’s a sloppy, artificial, concept, usually invoked to justify some absurdity. But in the case of the memory holes represented by Japan’s wartime atrocities and China’s self-inflicted wounds, I find it a useful rhetorical tool. [↩]