Toward Historical Reconciliation in East Asia: Emergence and Expansion of Transnational Networks

Seiko Mimaki

Seiko Mimaki

Takasaki City University of Economics

Dr. Seiko Mimaki is an associate professor at Takasaki City University of Economics. She received her BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo, and was a visiting fellow at Harvard University and a Harry & Helen Gray Reconciliation Fellow at AICGS in 2014. While at AICGS, her project investigated how to institutionalize multi-layered efforts at the societal level toward building ties of reconciliation among East Asian countries, focusing on evolving epistemic and transnational networks formed by various non-governmental actors such as scholars, public intellectuals, activists, and journalists, and often supported by outsider actors such as international organizations like UNESCO, and U.S. and European philanthropic foundations.

Dr. Mimaki explores various transnational reconciliation and peace-building efforts in human history. Her book, The Era of the Outlawry of War Movement, received a Hiroshi Shimizu Award from the Japanese Association for American Studies in 2015.

Pragmatic Necessity to Grapple with History Problems

East Asian countries are now facing a situation often called the “Asian paradox,” in which deepening economic interdependence coexists with historical and territorial conflicts, and mutual suspicion. The ties of trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges have been deepening, yet these material interactions have not erased Chinese and Korean peoples’ deep-rooted suspicion toward “unapologetic and militaristic” Japan.

For Japan, grappling with history problems is becoming an increasingly urgent issue not only from an ethical perspective, but also as a security imperative. Today, East Asian countries are facing various security challenges, such as nuclear non-proliferation, disaster relief, and anti-piracy efforts. Nevertheless, mutual suspicion has seriously prevented East Asian countries from institutionalizing regional security. In May 2012, Korea’s defense ministry announced that it was finalizing a Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) toward building a legal framework for the two countries to share classified and other confidential data. After the announcement, however, harsh criticism occurred not only from the opposition party but from the public, who were never ready to share military information with “militaristic” Japan. Though some “realists,” believing that national interests defined in terms of power always guide the actions of nations, have insisted that ideological confrontations like history problems should not have serious influence on international relations, history problems have intruded even in the security realm. In July 2014, the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinterpreted Japan’s Constitution to lift the ban on the right to exercise collective self-defense, and expressed its will to take more of an active role in regional peace. Without a reliable regional security framework, however, Japan’s more active role in the region would bring fear rather than a sense of security to Asian neighbors.

So far, rather than facing history problems with its Asian neighbors, the Abe cabinet has shifted its diplomatic efforts toward Europe under the banner of “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map.”[1] This spring, Abe visited six European countries (Germany, UK, Portugal, France, Spain, and Belgium) and celebrated the strong partnership between Japan and these European countries bound by “shared fundamental values” such as “freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.” Since he returned to power in December 2012, Abe has visited a total of forty-nine countries, which set the record for the number of foreign countries visited by a Japanese prime minister. Nevertheless, his “panoramic perspective of the world map” has lacked two of Japan’s important neighbors, China and South Korea. Territorial and history problems have prevented Japan from having a summit meeting with China and South Korea, both of which have required Japan to take more actions toward atonement for its past wrong doings before they would agree to have a bilateral summit. In the meantime, China and South Korea have increasingly strengthened their bilateral relations after Chinese General Secretary Xi Jingping’s visit to Seoul in July 2014.

Another slogan of Abe’s diplomacy is “value-based” diplomacy. The Abe cabinet has advocated democracy promotion as one of the central pillars of Japan’s foreign policy. Despite its idealistic appearance, however, this new approach is closely linked to strategic considerations.[2] By stressing the common “liberal values” such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, Abe’s cabinet has tried to convince the Western countries that Japan is the more attractive and reliable partner for them than China.


Overlooked Lessons from Germany: Societal Reconciliation

Recently, people in East Asia have increasingly lost their hope for historical reconciliation, and could benefit from fresh insights gleaned from the successful example of the postwar German reconciliation process. Of course, we would do well to consider differences in the political-economic contexts of such European antecedents. The reconciliation between France and Germany took place in the context of the economic integration of Western Europe, which was accompanied by the building of common political institutions. Likewise, the reconciliation between Germany and Poland took place amid the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and enlargement of the European Union.

Still, East Asian people have continuously looked at postwar German history as a model for reconciliation, believing that they could learn some useful lessons for their own reconciliation. However, it is also true that they have paid too much attention to governmental initiatives, and relatively overlooked the fact that the postwar German reconciliation process has been supported by a wide range of societal actors as well as political leaders.

Postwar German history tells us that reconciliation is a multi-layered process that involves various actors—not only governments and high officials, but various civil society actors playing a catalyst role for official initiatives, such as journalists, historians, churches, religious organizations, youth organizations, and philanthropic foundations. Diversity of actors means diversity of tactics. European reconciliation has been advanced through numerous tactics including official apology, compensation, commemoration, litigation, historical dialogues, joint textbook projects, cultural events, student exchanges, and twinning of cities and municipalities.[3]

The perspectives of societal reconciliation will open East Asian people’s eyes to new possibilities toward regional reconciliation. Many in East Asia regard historical reconciliation as a highly diplomatic and political action, in which compromise is difficult. Yet, societal reconciliation can be processed even under political tensions, and would build a foundation of future official initiatives. The stalemate of intergovernmental reconciliation never means that the whole reconciliation process is stymied.


Historians’ Efforts toward Reconciliation

In contrast to the European case, the East Asian reconciliation process has had much less diverse actors. Still, a number of civil society actors have been continuously working for regional reconciliation, often getting useful insights from the European experience. Among the most active societal actors were historians.

In postwar Japan, as early as the 1950s, historians and history teachers advocated holding an international conference on history textbooks following the European model. As the West German-Polish textbook dialogue became known among Japanese historians in the 1980s, they began serious discussion on having historical dialogues with their counterparts in China and South Korea. In the 1990s, following the example of the West German-Polish textbook commission, the Japanese and South Korean Joint Study Group on History Textbook was created.[4] In the 2000s, in order to counter emerging historical revisionist groups such as Tsukurukai in Japan, East Asian historians, again following the European precedents, launched the movement to create common textbooks and teaching materials, which led to the publication of the first East Asian common history guidebook, A History that Opens to the Future: The Contemporary and Modern History of Three East Asian Countries by the Trilateral Joint History Editorial Committee of Japan, China, and South Korea.[5] In 2012, historians from Japan, China, and South Korea jointly published New Modern History of East Asia, the two-volume guidebook of East Asian modern history. Though East Asian common textbooks have not yet been realized, there has been significant progress toward creating transnational understanding of the past since the 1990s.

Recently, the idea for creating common history textbooks has been shared with the greater number of people including high officials. As a result of the Japanese general election in 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which had showed a much more conciliatory attitude toward history issues than the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), came to power. Since then, politicians in South Korea and Japan have begun to explore the possibility of creating a joint history textbook with China. Though the LDP’s return to power in 2012 threw cold water on these positive movements, intensified diplomatic tensions over history problems brought politicians’ renewed attention to the joint textbook project. On 14 November 2013, at the conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, South Korea President Park Geun-hye insisted, “As Germany and France, and Germany and Poland did, we can publish a joint history textbook for Northeast Asia and build up practices of cooperation and dialogue.” She continued that that project would advance the “day when we can tear down the wall of history problems, the source of rows and distrust.”[6]


Europe as an Actor in East Asian Historical Dialogues

Today, Europe is no longer simply a model for East Asian historians. European actors have been increasingly involved in East Asian historical dialogues. The most important actor is the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research located in Braunschweig, Germany. The Institute, which has played a significant role in the European historical reconciliation process, recently expanded its geographical scope beyond Europe in order to promote historical dialogues in the other regions by utilizing its accumulated methods and experience.

In East Asia, the Institute has been highly regarded as the world textbook authority among textbook authors and curriculum researchers, who were seeking methods to bridge the gaps in the depictions of modern history between the neighboring countries. As a response to their requests, the Institute has been closely in touch with a number of educational institutions in China, Korea, and Japan, and its guidance sometimes covered not only depictions of textbooks but contents and methodologies. The Institute has had particularly close ties with the Northeast Asian History Foundation in South Korea, a newly established foundation pursuing historical reconciliation and peaceful coexistence in Northeast Asia. In 2008, the two institutes jointly held an international conference on “History Education and Reconciliation in East Asia.”[7]

In addition, through the involvement of the European Association of History Educators (EUROCLIO), East Asian history educators have been increasingly aware of the necessity of institutionalizing transnational cooperation among them. EUROCLIO was established in 1992 at the request of the Council of Europe with the purpose of connecting history education professionals from all parts of Europe. Within twenty years, it has become a far-reaching network of forty-four member associations and fifteen associated members from fifty-two countries. Believing that abuse and misuse of history is a common strategy used to construct destructive myths and to develop nationalist thought which often lies at the heart of conflict, EUROCLIO has regarded history education as an essential tool for reconciliation and democracy, and tried to spread peace-oriented history education even beyond Europe. For example, the International NGOs Conference on History and Peace in East Asia, a transnational coalition of civic groups based in South Korea whose purpose is to expand transnational networks of NGOs and academics toward historical reconciliation, has been in close contact with EUROCLIO. At the third international conference held in Seoul on 19-23 August 2009, EUROCLIO Executive Director Joke van der Leeuw Roord was asked to give a lecture focusing on the role of EUROCLIO in promoting history education that strengthens peace, stability, democracy, and critical thinking.[8]


Challenges for Historians: Toward More Inclusive Transnational Networks

It is absolutely true that through conscientious historians’ efforts, mutually acceptable transnational understanding of history has been steadily constructed in East Asia. Recently, believing that history education can be an important tool for reconciliation, East Asian historians, teachers, researchers, and international peace NGOs have enthusiastically learned European methods from European institutes such as the Georg Eckert Institute and EUROCLIO, both of which have increasingly realized the usefulness and applicability of their methods in other regions.

Despite these historians’ efforts, however, we are currently witnessing worsening history problems and political tensions. What perspectives have been lacking in a series of efforts toward historical reconciliation? Here, I would like to point out three fundamental challenges to be met in order to further advance historical reconciliation in East Asia.

First, contrary to historians’ basic assumptions that revealing historical truths would promote reconciliation, the attempts to clarify immutable historical truths have caused uncompromising controversy over what should be regarded as “truth,” and exacerbated international tension. Facing these realities, some historians who have devotedly engaged in historical dialogues with Asian counterparts begin to reconsider their past efforts, and to search for another positive role for historians.[9]

A second question is how rational dialogues among historians can be shared with people, the majority of whom have increasingly felt sympathy with more emotional and nationalistic views because of their distrust toward the neighboring countries. The situation has been worsened by policymakers who utilize national history in order to appeal to popular sentiments for their political purposes. Instead of just deploring the “emotional” public who never listens to their “rational” voices or criticizing “right-wing” historians’ insidious way of spreading their views by effectively appealing to people’s emotions, professional historians should develop pragmatic strategies to convince people and politicians of the necessity of transnational and reconciliatory historical understanding.

Third, how can professional historians differentiate themselves from “self-claimed” historians in the internet era? Here, Jürgen Habermas’ observation will help us to understand the problem. Habermas admits that the internet has drastically broadened the context of communication. Through the internet, anyone can express his or her opinion to the world instantly. Nevertheless, Habermas puts more emphasis on “the price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the internet.” The internet has fragmented the contexts of communication by opening access equally to experts’ “critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces” and amateurs’ “unedited stories.”[10] As a result, the line between opinions of professional historians and those of “self-claimed” historians has been increasingly blurred.

A Task for Future Historical Reconciliation

We should not undervalue the fact that transnational networks toward building ties of historical reconciliation have been constantly developing in East Asia. Nevertheless, we also should admit that these networks have included only a certain number of experts in related fields such as historians, teachers, and academics. How can we realize broader transnational networks in which a wider range of civil society actors participate?

This task should not be left solely to professional historians and experts in related fields. Here again, we can gain some useful insights from the comparison between postwar Europe and Asia. Trying to explain why postwar Germany has been much more successful than Japan in reconciling with its former enemies, some people have focused on differences of geographical situations surrounding both countries. Others have emphasized the “sincerity” of Germany’s apologies contrasting with Japanese “insincerity.” What has been relatively overlooked is how Japan’s immature civil society has impeded formation of transnational solidarity toward reconciliation. Until recently, whether in China, Korea, or Japan, citizens’ activities to formulate transnational networks toward historical reconciliation have been under the strong control of the state. Vibrant civil society, which has been evident in Europe and the U.S., is still absent in East Asian countries.[11] The task of realizing historical reconciliation in East Asia would ultimately be linked to empowering civil society and developing responsible citizens.

Recently, Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet has increasingly realized the pragmatic necessity of having more dialogues with China and South Korea. In July, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda visited China and met Xi Jinping to explore the possibility of holding a summit meeting between Abe and Xi at the APEC summit in Beijing this November. In September, Abe expressed a wish to meet President Park Geun-Hye in a letter delivered by former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. On 21 September, speaking at the exclusive interview to NHK before leaving for New York to speak at the UN General Assembly, Abe confessed his hope to have a talk with Xi and Park, emphasizing, “China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. You could say that the two countries are inseparable […] Japan and South Korea share the values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, as well as a common strategic situation.”[12]

Japan’s willingness to have dialogues with leaders of China and South Korea does not necessarily mean that the Japanese government is now ready to take new steps toward historical reconciliation. On 25 September in New York, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se met Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and required Japan to make constructive efforts toward healing wounds from their bilateral history including overtures toward Korean “comfort women.”[13] So far, the Japanese government has refused to take new actions on the “comfort women” issue, though they have also emphasized that Japan would continue to uphold the Kono statement, which showed Japan’s “sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”[14]

Historical reconciliation in East Asia is still a distant goal. We should not, however, be over-ambitious, which easily leads to bitter disappointment. Politicians’ reconciliation efforts, even if they were motivated by pragmatic concerns, can create a foundation for future deeper reconciliation. With regard to goals, we should be stubborn idealists who persistently aim higher. With regard to pathways, however, we should be realists who do not deny any possible pathway toward reconciliation.

 Dr. Seiko Mimaki was a Harry & Helen Gray/AGI Reconciliation Fellow in August and September 2014.   


[1] “Prime Minister Abe’s Visit to Europe: A Powerful Partner in “Diplomacy That Takes a Panoramic Perspective of the World Map,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 9 May 2014,

[2] Maiko Ichihara, “Japan’s Strategic Approach to Democracy Support,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Research Paper, 7 March 2014,

[3] Lily Gardner Feldman, “Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy: Relations with France, Israel, Poland, and the Czech Republic,” International Affairs, vol.75, no.2 (1999), p. 333-356; Lily Gardner Feldman, “Non-State Actors in Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: Catalyst, Complements, Conduits, or Competitors?” in Anne-Marie Le Gloannec ed., Non-state Actors in International Relations (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 15-45.

[4] Kawate Keiichi, “Historical Reconciliation between Germany and Poland as Seen from a Japanese Perspective: The Thought of a Japanese Historian and Their Development,” in Gotelind Müller ed., Designing History in East Asian Textbooks: Identity Politics and Transnational Aspiration (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), p. 229-244.

[5] About these dialogues and their significance, see Daquig Yang, “‘A Noble Dream?’ Shared History and Asia Pacific Community,” Paper for the conference “The Japan-US-China Triangle and the Okinawa Question: Toward Shared History and Common Security” at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, The George Washington University, 9 January 2009.

[6] “Park Pitches Joint History Book,” Korean Times, 14 November 2013,

[7] The Georg Eckert Institute, “Textbook Activities in East Asia,”

[8] EUROCLIO Newsletter, July 2009.

[9] Hiroshi Mitani, “Why Do We Still Need to Talk About ‘Historical Understanding’ in East Asia?” Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 12, issue 32, no. 3 (11 August 2014),

[10] Jürgen Habermas, “Towards a United States of Europe,” Acceptance Speech at Bruno Kreisky Prize, 27 March 2006,

[11] Andrew Horvat, “A Strong State, Weak Civil Society, and Cold War Geopolitics: Why Japan Lags behind Europe in Confronting a Negative Past,” in Gi-Wook Shin, Soon-Won Park, and Daquig Yang eds., Rethinking Historical Injustice and Reconciliation in Northern Asia: The Korean Experience (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), chapter 11.

[12] “On the Road to the UN General Meeting-An Exclusive Interview with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” NHK World, 21 September 2014,

[13] Isabel Reynolds and Takashi Hirokawa, “Japan, China Talks May Be Gaining Impetus Toward Summit,” Bloomberg, 26 September 2014,

[14] “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the Result of the Study on the Issue of ‘Comfort Women,’” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 4 August 1993,

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.