Small Wars Journal

It’s Not History, East Asia, It’s the Stories We Tell

Tue, 03/04/2014 - 3:36pm

It’s Not History, East Asia, It’s the Stories We Tell

David Hunter-Chester

People do not live in history, they live in the narrative. I wish I could find the name of the scholar who made this observation and the original source, but even in the age of Google both elude me. Regardless of its origin, nowhere is this truth more evident than between three countries in East Asia. Two of those countries, Japan and the Republic of Korea (RoK), by dint of shared values, national interests and sheer geostrategic necessity, are natural allies.[i] The third country, China, actively seeks to change the international status quo in the region, a status quo which has ushered in more than 60 years of peace and prosperity for millions. As two countries who have benefited so much from this long peace, China’s incremental, “probing and nibbling strategy”[ii] to change that status quo should be pushing Japan and Korea closer together. Instead each calls on the other to acknowledge the facts of history. For China, as well, this prolonged peace has resulted in moving more people from absolute poverty to better living standards than anywhere else in history. Yet China, pushing this change for domestic and strategic reasons, instead of working to maintain a system that has benefited so many for so long, uses a call for acknowledging correct history to rationalize its actions, and deflect attention from its actions. While all three countries call for a correct view of history, the problem is not history, but narrative.

Japan’s narrative is centered on Japan as the real victim in World War II. According to this narrative Japan, the only country ever to be attacked by atomic weapons, had only been trying to free Asia from Western domination, and it has been repaid with fire, death and calumny. According to this storyline, the Tokyo War Crimes trials were the worst kind of victor’s justice. Japan loves peace more than other countries; this tale goes, as evidenced by the war-renouncing Article Nine in its constitution.[iii]

Korea’s narrative of victimization goes back even further. A shrimp between whales, the Korean peninsula has often been invaded and occupied by its larger neighbors. Independence Hall, outside of Seoul, emphasizes this narrative with paintings, plaques and full-size wax-figure reproductions. While numerous invasions from China are memorialized, the most prominent depredations are the depictions of torture and oppression meted out by the Japanese during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, from 1905 to 1945.

In China the story is about the Middle Kingdom’s century of humiliation, beginning with the first Opium War in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, 1949. Slicing up the Chinese melon with the Unequal Treaty System and doling out the humiliation was the West, and its proxy, Japan. Here, again, Japan’s brutality, beginning in 1931 in Manchuria and extending to the rest of China in 1936, is singled out as particularly brutal and venal.

I am not arguing Japan was not brutal. It was, and the atrocities are well documented,[iv] just as the history of the so-called comfort women is well documented.[v] But so is the positive history of Japan’s interactions with its neighbors that has followed since 1945.[vi] And Japan has officially apologized, repeatedly. Though the Government of Japan can be criticized for not consistently and vociferously condemning the numerous gaffes and counter-narrative statements by unhelpful officials, the statements themselves are simply evidence that storylines counter to the single, official and genuinely penitent position of the Government of Japan exists. This is true in all countries – narratives mix and compete with one another. It is also true that between countries an offered apology must be accepted to be effective.

In East Asia, each country cries out for the others to take a correct view of history, and to then act accordingly. The problem is, of course, no correct view of history – if that means a history consisting of objectively gathered and vetted facts that no one can object to – is possible. I am a historian, an East Asian historian, in fact, and as much as I and other historians would like for it to be otherwise, no one can compile a set of facts to explain a given situation that is completely accurate and free of any possible error or bias. Our histories detail human interaction over a period of time; there can be no such depiction which does not involve differences in perspective, culture and interpretation. The best we can arrive at, using accepted standards of evidence and being as objective as possible, is a version of history. And we explain that version through a narrative. As human beings that is how we cope with the world, by telling stories.

So what to do about these narratives in East Asia, narratives that threaten to impede the progress and plenty that has benefited so many millions of people for so long, and which could lead to much more dire consequences if left unchanged? East Asia needs to tell a new story: A story about the long peace, now in its 61st year, unprecedented in length and breadth for this region during at least the last thousand years. A story which includes Japan as the top aid provider to and one of the top investors in both China and South Korea during this time. A story about the shared success of creating wealth for the greatest number of people over the shortest period of time probably in history. And a story which includes how each culture has cross-pollinated the others in positive ways.

Changing the story, crafting a new, regional narrative that supports and enhances cooperation and peaceful development, requires, as Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations has recently called for, statesmanship.[vii] As mature, consolidated democracies, and given their shared values, shared strategic interests and, yes, their shared, positive histories, Japan and the RoK are best poised to engage in this statesmanship. Ironically, given that both heads of government have burnished their domestic, nationalist credentials recently, they both are now perhaps ideally situated to reach out to one another. If only Nixon could go to China, it may be that only Abe can go to the Republic of Korea and only Park can go to Japan. 

The two countries should hold a summit, as Japan has called for, and begin the process of crafting a new regional narrative. This meeting should, again, as Scott Snyder has recommended, at least end with a joint declaration. Whether the process goes on to include some kind of bi-national truth and reconciliation committee, or some other mechanism, is less important than acknowledging the benefits of telling a story that allows for mutual cooperation going forward. Having successfully launched this initiative the Japanese and Koreans can invite the Chinese to join them in a similar process.

The countries involved in these historical spats have tried, and failed, to come up with a shared history they can each agree with before. This will always fail if each treats its own narrative as sacrosanct and immune to error. The best they can hope for is a narrative that stresses their myriad positive interactions, while understanding and acknowledging they will disagree on particulars of each country’s own story. Civilized, mature people can disagree, yet move forward positively, just as civilized, mature countries can. Each country has a right, and a responsibility, to face its past. Just as that past is shared, with genuine hurts and grievances, the future challenges the region will face are shared as well. East Asia can best face these challenges with a regional narrative that stresses forgiveness, peace, cooperation, progress and hope.


Cha, Victor D. Alignment Despite Antagonism : The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle. Studies of the East Asian Institute, Columbia University.  Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Cronin, Patrick M. "Three Hidden Time Bombs in the Us-Japan Alliance."  The Diplomat (2014). Published electronically February 28.

Davis, Carlo. "Which Country Has the World's Best Reputation?" (2013). Published electronically June 29.

Drea, Edward J. Macarthur's Ultra : Codebreaking and the War against Japan, 1942-1945. Modern War Studies.  Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Hicks, George L. The Comfort Women : Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. 1st American ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.

Orr, James Joseph. The Victim as Hero : Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan.  Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001.

Snyder, Scott A. "Asia Unbound » Biden’s Bet on a South Korea Squeezed on All Sides." (2013). Published electronically December 6.

End Notes

[i] Victor D. Cha, Alignment Despite Antagonism : The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle, Studies of the East Asian Institute, Columbia University (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[ii] Patrick M. Cronin, "Three Hidden Time Bombs in the Us-Japan Alliance,"  The Diplomat(2014),

[iii] For the best explanation of how Japan developed this narrative, see James Joseph Orr, The Victim as Hero : Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan(Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001).

[iv] For an even-handed treatment, with many Japanese-language sources, see Edward J. Drea, Macarthur's Ultra : Codebreaking and the War against Japan, 1942-1945, Modern War Studies (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

[v] George L. Hicks, The Comfort Women : Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, 1st American ed.(New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995).

[vi] Japan is regularly listed as having one of the best reputations in the world, and as the best in the world for trusted name brands. See, for instance, Carlo Davis, "Which Country Has the World's Best Reputation?," (2013),

[vii] Scott A. Snyder, "Asia Unbound » Biden’s Bet on a South Korea Squeezed on All Sides," (2013),


About the Author(s)

Dr. David Hunter-Chester is an assistant professor of strategy and operations at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. A retired U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer colonel, he has a Ph.D. in East Asian History from the University of Kansas, and he has lived in or studied East Asia for more than 30 years.


David Hunter-Chester

Thu, 03/06/2014 - 11:30am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Thank you pointing out Presdient Park's op-ed. I had not been aware of it. I think you are right, President Park obviously does get it, and I think the leaders in Japan in China do as well. A key difference is that Chinese leaders are actually using Japan history shaming to both bolster nationalist support domestically and to distract from its attempt to change the regional rules of the road internationally. Chinese leaders feel a need to secure sea-side approaches to China, and their attempt at changing the East and South China Seas into their exclusive (nearly) territorial waters is part of that. Leaders in both Japan and Korea are playing to domestic constituencies as well, but the difference is that allowing this anger over differing historical narratives to scuttle even the previous, uneasy "alignment despite antagonism," in Victor Cha's phrase, make both Japan and Korea less secure. Taking on the passions people invest in national narratives is tough -- there are plenty example from our own history that are instructive. Yet there are times when nations' strategic interests call for statesmanship, and this is one of those times. Scott Snyder's call for statesmanship and reconciliation was echoed in testimony by scholars, including Sheila Smith, Mike Auslin and others, on Tuesday, Mar 4, at the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Strategically, we, the U.S., would like to leverage a trilateral relationship in Northeast Asia, working closely with Japan and Korea as they work closely with us and with each other, to protect the gains of 60+ years of peace. President Park is right about the necessity of "embark[ing] on a path of reconciliation." I argue Japan and Korea should do that first, bolstering one another as they subsequently try to reconcile with China, the only power actively trying to change the status quo. Thanks again for the comment, and for pointing out presdient Park's position. Cheers, David

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 6:13am

This makes perfect sense to us as westerners. But many of these arguments, while logical are not accepted by many in the east. One thing that the author left out is a discussion of the Asian Paradox described by ROK President Park Guen-hye in which she posits that the countries of Asia have become more and more economically interdependent the security situation grows unstable because of the increasing military capabilities and tensions because of the very history described below.

From Park's 2012 OpEd in the WSJ:

QUOTE At the same time, Asia increasingly lies at the heart of the global economy. Hence, the international community is apprehensive that a rising Asia long associated with rapid growth and more open cooperation is morphing into a clashing Asia. Such a bifurcated Asia, or what I refer to as "Asia's paradox," is the single most important obstacle that has to be overcome by the region's leaders.

Specifically, if tensions in Northeast Asia remain unresolved, not only will decades of partnerships unravel, we cannot rule out unintended clashes. Preventing such a turn of events and removing Asia's many obstacles to cooperation requires the undivided attention of Asia's leaders. Such efforts are essential if Northeast Asia is to embark on a path of reconciliation, not to mention building a more sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula. END QUOTE…

President Park gets it and I think most of the leaders in all three countries get it. The problem is that the public in each think their narrative is the right one and that the others should adjust theirs. Look at the Japan-ROK intel sharing agreement that the leaders of both countries wanted but that domestic political pressures scuttled. All politics is local.

David Hunter-Chester

Thu, 03/06/2014 - 11:43am

In reply to by Bill M.

Within the three countries, it is in the interests of Japan and the Republic of Korea to reconcile, while it is in China's interest, because China wants to change the status quo, for the two natural allies to remain at odds. It is also in America's national interest for our two key allies in Northeast Asia to reconcile. We would like to take on the challenges in the region trilaterally with them (see my reply to Dave Maxwell). I don't argue that a new narrative must replace old narratives. I argue that nationalist narratives, if necessary, must be changed to at least allow for the possibility of cooperation. As I stated, there will certainly be areas of each country's own narrative that will be at odds with the other country's, but the two countries will have to agree to disagree. Then they can craft a new regional narrative, which should have at its core a call to recognize the benefits that have already accrued from peaceful cooperation, and which will continue to accrue if allowed to. Thanks for the comment. Cheers, David


Within the three nations, in who's interest would it be to change the narrative? It seems that for your proposal to work the leaders from the three countries would have to meet behind closed doors and agree to a new narrative, and then somehow find a way to replace the historical one that individual leaders have leveraged for political benefit for decades.

I like the article, but the proposal appears to be a bit wishful thinking.

Of course there has been considerable revisions of America's historical narrative by the far left that has been embraced by our media and much of our public education system, but not all Americans. Furthermore we're a different breed of cat.