The History Problem. The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia by Saito Hiro

The History Problem. The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
by Saito Hiro
Honolulu: University of Hawai’i / Hawai’i Press (2017)
ISBN-13: 978-0824874391

Review by Andrew Levidis (University of Central Lancashire)

Remembrance of war is seared into the landscape of East Asia. Hiroshima, Nanjing, Tokyo fire-bombings, and the breaching of the Yellow River, these names call forth the battlefields and ruins of Japan’s multiethnic empire, and conjure up shadows of the great conflagration which in the 1930s and 1940s wrought unprecedented violence and destruction in East Asia. At the denouement of these interconnected imperial and civil wars, waged on and off between 1931 and 1949, the geopolitics of the region were convulsively transformed: The Great Japanese Empire disintegrated in 1945; the People’s Republic of China was declared in 1949 following the victory of Mao Zedong in the revolutionary war (1937-1949); and the post-colonial lands of the Korean nation were divided and soon at war (1950-1953).

It is these phantoms of Japan’s imperium, and the complex post-1945 landscape of commemoration and memorialization that Hiro Saito wrestles with in this thoughtful account, whose arguments span the different fields of East Asian history, war commemoration, sociology, and memory studies. The “history problem” is an umbrella term that has been used to describe the ensemble of issues including apologizes and reparations for the foreign victims of Imperial Japan’s wars (1931-1945), prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where spirits of Japan’s war dead are enshrined, and narratives of World War II in Japanese school textbooks. The History Problem is a rich and penetrating study of the vociferous debates and interactions among political parties and social movements of the right and left, over how to memorialize the Second World War and its legacies in post-imperial Japanese society. Saito adroitly documents the decades-long struggle to institutionalize cosmopolitan forms of commemoration against the background of a shifting international landscape in East Asia, and evolving national perceptions about World War II in Japan.

The History Problem comprises two major layers of analysis over seven chapters. The introduction outlines the book’s analytical framework in terms of shifting configurations of nationalism and cosmopolitanism – the two foci of commemoration. Saito argues the politics of war commemoration in East Asia are “fundamentally relational,” (6) and enmeshed in self-serving stories of defeat, revolution, and national liberation still prevalent in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul. The first four chapters comprise a tour d’horizon of war commemoration from 1945 to the early twenty-first century. Chapter 1 illustrates how the early years of organizing and hard lobbying by the Japan Bereaved Families Association (Nihon Izokukai) to restore pensions and social welfare to the families of fallen soldiers and injured veterans, represented a crucial step in shaping official commemoration which, with few exceptions, failed to embrace former imperial subjects and mobilized populations. It is this logic of commemoration, politically and territorially bounded to the nation-state after 1945, and reinforced by Cold War ideologies, which Saito argues circumscribed “cosmopolitan” recognition of foreign victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chapter 2 examines how in the wake of normalization of diplomatic relations with South Korea (1965) and China (1972), newly mobilized transnational networks of activists led the Japanese government to begrudgingly extend welfare support to Korean A-bomb survivors; and also inhibited attempts to restore Yasukuni Shrine to the center of official commemorations in the 1980s.

The ending of the Cold War in the 1990s brought with it a far-reaching reexamination of long suppressed issues of compensation (Korean comfort women, Chinese forced laborers) flowing from Imperial Japan’s total war mobilization against China and the Allies. Chapter 3 shows how shifting geopolitical forces, together with the brief domestic political realignment after the fall of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party in 1993, ushered in explicitly cosmopolitan projects to address historically marginalized Asian victims. Chapter 4 reveals neither a clean victory for nationalism or cosmopolitanism in Japanese war commemoration in the 2000s, and chronicles the deepening brutalization of the wartime past in East Asia, together with the growing enmeshment of the “history problem” with territorial disputes (Liancourt, Senkaku islands).

The essential and most thought-provoking arguments of this book reside in chapter 5 in which Saito argues for re-examination of key tenets of the postwar legal edifice, namely the judgement of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948), to take into account the longer histories of imperialism and colonial rule, thus enabling recognition of Japan as both perpetrator and victim. In Chapter 6, Saito makes explicit the essentially progressive thrust of his intellectual project when he proposes historians, a “transnational epistemic community,” (178) play a crucial role in reorienting remembrance towards the common ground of shared suffering.

The History Problem is a poignant, yet essentially hopeful, call for transcending the shibboleths of narrow forms of nationalism in war commemoration in East Asia. It is not however, entirely unproblematic. Saito’s analytical framework is ambitious, and at times overburden the book with his insistence on a starkly dichotomous relationship of nationalism and cosmopolitanism in which little room is left for the subtleties, ironies, and messiness of lived historical experience. There is an inescapable sense that these abstract and formalistic distinctions shut Saito off from other possible configurations of war commemoration. One wonders of the possibilities for collective remembrance of the military war dead of Japan, China and Korea, a veritable “community of the fallen,” transcending borders and uniting individuals and families in mourning and contemplation of the horrors of war. The (albeit ambivalent) role played by former Japanese Imperial Army officers, South Manchurian Railway officials, and right-wing politicians as intermediaries between Japan and the “New China” in the 1950s, further militates against such a clear separation between cosmopolitan and nationalist ethos.

The History Problem is at its weakest when dealing with postwar political parties which are either to be condemned (LDP) or condoned (JCP, JSP). One would be forgiven for assuming that very little has changed between the Liberal Democratic Party of the 1950s and its early-twenty first century incarnations. Yet far from the monolithic “defender of nationalist commemoration” (72) that Saito portrays, the LDP’s position has always been the consequence of fierce intra-party contestation and evolving political imperatives. Intriguingly, one wonders how the shifting landscape of war commemoration was impacted when the generation of political leaders, who had come of age in the last decades of the Japanese Empire, yielded power to younger colleagues not directly implicated in wartime atrocities?

While Saito’s nuanced argument to de-center the judgement of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials from the politics of war commemoration is well taken, he misses an opportunity to reach back to Chinese BC war crimes trials and the ideal of “justice over revenge” to restore previously elided possibilities beyond victim and perpetrator.[1] The History Problem points to how war commemoration is bound up in deeper historical processes, namely, de-imperialization, military defeat, and Allied occupation which established important precedents – legal and political – that continue to influence the Japanese government’s notion of state responsibility. A stronger account would examine how nationalism was mobilized in nineteenth and twentieth century nation-building projects in Japan, Korea, and China, to better understand the role nationalist forms of commemoration played in legitimizing state power after 1945.

What then of historians? I am not entirely convinced by this book’s argument for historians to assume a greater role in the public sphere to adjudicate unresolved issues stemming from war and Japanese empire-building. Saito presumes a fundamentally benign understanding of the writing of history – which can divide as much as unite – and of the historical profession which is not necessarily driven by the rubric of cosmopolitanism, but just as often has deep roots in the nation-state.

For all the reservations made above, The History Problem is an important addition to the growing literature on Japan’s war commemoration that contributes much to our understanding of larger questions of justice, politicized history, and collective memory in East Asia.


[1] Barak Kushner, Men to devils, devils to men: Japanese war crimes and Chinese justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. 305.



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