For most Americans, World War II is distant history–a setting for adventure films such as “Captain America,” History Channel documentaries, and not much more. It is startling, then, to be reminded of the virulence of historical memory in Asia.
Only two years ago, there were substantial anti-Japanese protests in China. The ostensible cause was a clash between Chinese fishing vessels and a Japanese patrol boat in the East China Sea, but it was really a revelation of the deep emotions that remain from the Japanese occupation of a large part of China during the 1930s-40s which included the infamous Rape of Nanking. Now in South Korea, a top national security official has had to resign because of his temerity in negotiating an accord with Japan to share intelligence over a mutual threat–North Korea.
You would think this pact between two pro-Western democracies would be a no-brainer, but as the New York Times account notes, “After the Lee government announced the deal last Thursday, accusations flew that the government was ‘pro-Japanese,’ a far worse charge in South Korea than being ‘pro-North Korean.’” Hatred of Japan is of course explained by the brutality of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century, which included the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women.” Emotions remain raw in no small part because Japan, unlike Germany, still has trouble fully acknowledging the wrong it has done. I recall a few years ago visiting the Yasukani Shrine in Tokyo, whose museum continues to glorify the actions of Japan’s war criminals.
For the United States, this is a vexing challenge because it makes it more difficult to marshal the kind of united front among our allies we would like to see. As a practical matter, it may be easier to try to create a more multilateral security alliance in East Asia rather than trying to force countries such as Japan and South Korea into bilateral pacts that will be contentious among their populace.
The larger message, though, is about just how necessary America remains to preserving security in this region which will be the biggest source of wealth in the world in the 21st century. Too many Americans do not see the importance of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, Japan, or other countries. They are, after all, wealthy and powerful. Why do they need American help? In large part because the U.S. remains the most trusted power in the region, and one that other countries depend on to keep the peace and to repress not-so-buried national rivalries. If we are unable to perform that role in the future because of Draconian cuts in our defense budget, the consequences for regional security and prosperity–and hence our own security and prosperity–will be dire.