Achieving true reconciliation

I still remember my first class in Japan when my students asked me: “Sensei, Japan is such a peace-loving country. Why are Koreans and Chinese angry at us?” I also remember what my students said in South Korea: “What is wrong with them? Why are they not apologizing for their misdeeds?” There was little space for any reflection why the other side does not think the way we do.

Teaching peace and reconciliation in Japan and in South Korea is not an easy experience. When I asked my Korean students to tell me whether their argument would have remained the same if they had been born Japanese, their reaction was violent. When I asked my Japanese students to do the same exercise, they looked at me not as their professor any more but as the “other” side.

It was only when I gave lectures about Polish-German, Armenian-Turkish or French-Algerian relations that they started having a deeper reflection on the reconciliation issue. The first step toward reconciliation — I prefer saying “efforts to rebuild a broken relationship”— is the willingness to deeply understand why and how the other side sees the same issue from different angles.

With Ingvild Bode, a U.N. University research fellow, I conducted a joint research project on comparing German and Japanese students’ narratives about World War II. We found out that the degree and the variety of knowledge sources they are exposed to largely affect the way they assess their home countries’ role during World War II. Furthermore, it also influences the way they perceive their relations with former enemy states.

The net outcome of knowledge gap may not be that surprising. However, their World War II narratives showed that the diversity of knowledge sources allowed German students to carry various ways of understanding the past — including self-critical assessments, which remains heavily homogeneous in the Japanese case. While both German and Japanese students chose high school education to be the most important source of their knowledge, the variety of sources largely differed.

As one example, German students noted that aspects of World War II history were covered not just in their history lessons but also across a variety of different subjects, such as literature, religion, philosophy and politics/economics, whereas 98 percent of Japanese respondents answered history class only, which often remains an elective.

In addition, German students displayed a wide variety of knowledge sources such as school trips to museums or memorials, daily conversation with their friends or acquaintances, ARTE (a Franco-German joint TV channel) and joint history textbooks.

Japanese students are not provided with much other sources except oral stories from their grandfathers, NHK and online sources such as Wikipedia or Google. No wonder their war stories we read look so similar that I almost thought they copied their answers from one another.

World War II remains an important reference point for how countries perceive themselves and are perceived by others. This constant interactive process between the past and the present is challenging since the current generation did not experience or witness the traumatic historical event themselves. We cannot remember something we did not experience. Instead, we shape our perception based on what we have learned at school, what we have seen from the media and what we have heard from our older generation — thus it is susceptible to manipulation or distortion.

From my teaching experience, I realized that our students rarely took the time to think about how to rebuild a broken relationship with their neighboring countries. As our research outcome proves, German students showed a high familiarity with the names and the roles of political or social actors who contributed to promoting reconciliation between Germany and its former enemy states whereas Japanese students showed the opposite.

Furthermore, Japanese students had little awareness of themselves as potential agents of reconciliation while German students offered various original ideas when asked about their own role to promote reconciliation. For this reason, it is crucial for our younger generation to be exposed to various ideas and have a locus to think and share their reflections, not only among themselves but also with youth from their neighboring countries.

Just like the expression “It takes two to tango,” reconciliation implies two sides. The beauty of the tango does not depend on how perfectly you make your own step or master your skills. It rather relies on how well you feel and understand your partner through eye contact, body gesture and hand pressure in order to make your next move together.

Reconciliation goes the same way. You do not unilaterally deliver a message. It is not like “I said what I wanted, I am done!” When you talk, you care about the reaction of your counterpart: You listen even though you do not want to. Mutual dialogue requires practice and patience. It is perhaps easier to break a relationship than rebuild a broken one. It is perhaps easier to hate someone we once loved than to love someone we once hated.

Not everyone can reconcile. Soon, we will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. I hope that our younger generation, at least my students, can seize this opportunity to learn how to tango.

Emilia Seunghoon Heo is an assistant professor of global studies and international relations at Sophia University and the author of Reconciling Enemy States in Europe and Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). She has a career background in diplomatic service and regularly lectures in the South Korean Parliament. Her research focuses on political and social actors in processes of reconciliation beyond national borders.

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