Will the memory of war ever be erased? An example from Japan

Hayato Nakayama, a recent college graduate with a major in international relations and conflict resolution, facilitated this living room dialogue.  A native of Japan, he began by offering some of his country’s history as an example of how war leaves scars that can continue to trouble relations among people for generations after the last shot is fired.  The questions he posed for dialogue led participants to reflect on the power of memory, on denial, on lingering feelings of guilt, and the need for forgiveness.

Hayato acknowledged that the perspective on Japanese history he was presenting was not accepted by everyone in Japan.  He organized as a power point the following information:

Japanese Imperial History
In l910, Japan annexed and took control of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria in China.

In 1937, Second Sino-Japanese War.  (Nanjing, Beijing, & Shanghai were occupied; 20 million civilian deaths and 3 million military casualties)

Four Major Controversies
1.  Nanking Massacre
Nanking used to be the capital of the Republic of China
On Dec. 9, 1937, hundreds of thousands of Chinese people were murdered
20,000 – 80,000 women were raped.
Some Japanese denied this episode.  They claim it has been either exaggerated or     wholly fabricated for propaganda purposes.
2.  Comfort Women
Those who were forced into prostitution as a form of sexual slavery by the     Japanese military during WW II.
Some Japanese argue that there was no organized forced recruitment of comfort     women by the Japanese government or military.
3.  Textbook issue.
This concerns a systematic distortion of the historical record propagated in the     Japanese education system.
The content seeks to whitewash the actions of the Empire of Japan during the     Second World War.
Ex:  “Japan ‘advanced into’ Northern China” instead of “invaded”
4.  Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the kami (spirits) of soldiers who died     fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan.
World War II war criminals were enshrined
In 2006, Japanese prime minister visited the shrine and this caused a lot of anger          in China and Korea.

The questions Hayato posed for dialogue were:
1. Do you think that war memories like these will ever be erased?  If so, how could that happen?
2. Do you think we can pass over the history or always come back and not move forward?
3. If you were a diplomat from Japan and wanted to solve this issue, what would you suggest?
4. How can perpetrators work on this kind of history issue?
5. More personally, can you forgive something awful that has been done to you?

In response to the first question, most participants seemed to agree that erasing such memories were neither possible nor desirable.  Memories and perspectives change over time.  The important thing, they thought, is to hold on to the historical facts while  healing the feelings attached to them.  A shared desire for peace and dialogue to bring about better understanding might ease painful emotion and a sense of despair, but it would not erase what has happened.

It would be helpful if textbooks described history’s horrible chapters without recreating the animosity.   History tends to be told from the perspective of those in power.  It is important to re-tell our stories, but people resist looking at things from another’s point of view.  There can be progress, though:  here in the U.S. the facts about slavery and the genocide of native peoples are slowly being accepted into the dominant narrative of this country.

One participant who had worked in a facility in the U.S. where the atomic bomb was developed said she still felt guilty about her part in creating so destructive an instrument.  At the time, people believed they were doing a good thing.  Hayato told us that some young people in Japan have guilty feelings about the Japanese Empire and the episodes described in his power point.

A lengthy discussion about forgiveness followed, with one participant stressing that it’s not all about being forgiven or forgiving others so much as letting go of our own darkness and forgiving ourselves.  Another pointed out that the only thing anyone can change is oneself.  Not being able to forgive yourself creates a barrier between yourself and others.

In response to the question about personally being able to forgive, one person confessed that she found it very hard to forgive some things and can’t pretend that everything is OK, but that she holds on to the intention of forgiveness in her daily reflective practice and imagines it will come in its time.  True connection, another person added, takes place in ways we can’t divine.

Some other thoughts expressed in the conclusion of the meeting were:
* The Japanese felt it necessary to conquer nations abroad in order to get natural resources they needed.  There may be big conflicts ahead when the world starts running out of oil, water, etc.  It will be good if we can start now in finding ways to share.
* “Forgive and Forget” is not a good motto – it’s no good pretending.
* A fantasy that a lot of people around the world are having conversations like this one.
* One participant told Hayato that his presentation helped to break down stereotypes about the Japanese people she still held deep in her mind from WW II, and she thanked him for that.  Others thanked him for creating a moment of reflection and learning helpful to all.

About networkforpeace

Network for Peace through Dialogue (formerly the Center of International Learning) was begun in 1985 by sociologists, theologians, and educators from Germany, the Philippines and the United States united by their world view and wanting to participate in transformative change. The Center was to provide ongoing learning, analysis and collaboration between people of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. There were two specific goals: to promote democratic processes and to work toward de-militarization. Thus since 1985 The Network for Peace through Dialogue has been dedicated to connecting grassroots communities, both local and global in order to identify and research common issues and solutions in the areas of making peace and promoting just action. Our objective is to provide a platform so that communities and societies can expand understanding and discuss their differences within a dynamic environment to help resolve conflicts and cooperate more fully. In all our programs we do so by analyzing, facilitating, and fostering dialogue, identifying solutions and sharing information.
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