Keimyung University, Academia Koreana
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  • The History Problem: The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia by Hiro Saito
The History Problem: The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia. By Hiro Saito. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2017. 279 pp. (ISBN: 9780824856748)

In the past two decades or so, a growing number of scholars have payed attention to the developments, politics, and contents of collective memory and commem-oration in East Asia and to the ways they play out in the relationships between the countries of the region. Within the body of literature that emerged, scholars have utilized their research findings to offer recommendations and suggestions on how to alleviate tensions and facilitate reconciliation. Prof. Hiro Saito's The History Problem: The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia is a valuable contribution to this scholarship.

The book centers on "East Asia's history problem," which is understood as "a set of complexly entangled controversies over how to commemorate the Asia-Pacific War" (p. 3). Saito points out to the interactions between, and the collision of, the nationalist commemorations of Japan, China, and South Korea (pp. 3–7), yet he also maintains that "nationalism is no longer the only logic of com-memoration available today" (p. 7). Accordingly, he discusses the concept of "cosmopolitan commemoration" that allows people to "engage in transformative dialogues with foreign others that critically reflect on the nationalist biases in their [End Page 648] version of history" (p. 7). He sets out to understand "how different groups organize and justify their own commemorations by drawing on nationalism and cosmopolitanism" (p. 9), and asks: can the history problem be resolved, and if so, how? (vii, p. 3, and p. 178). Saito's research is meticulous, and thanks to the book's well-organized structure and the clarity of the writing, the analysis is coherent and the arguments are well-articulated.

First, Saito periodizes the evolution of East Asia's history problem by distinguishing four periods. In Chapter 1 he argues that between 1945 and 1964 the Japanese government successfully established an official nationalist com-memoration. In Chapter 2, which is dedicated to the period between 1965 and 1988, Saito demonstrates how the problem emerged following Japan's diplomatic normalization with South Korea and China in 1965 and 1972, respectively. He argues that, although some cosmopolitanism was injected into Japan's official commemoration, nationalist commemoration remained dominant and was fostered in China and South Korea as well. The history problem, as Saito shows in Chapter 3, then fully developed during the aftermath of Emperor Hirohito's death in 1989, into the post-Cold War era, and until 1996. In Chapter 4 he elaborates on how the problem became more complex in the years 1997 to 2015, beginning with vocal criticism within Japan against a "masochistic tendency" (p. 102) in the interpretation of the country's history.

Following this historical investigation, Saito explores "The Legacy of the Tokyo Trial" in Chapter 5. He emphasizes that, "one of the most important findings" of his analysis is that proponents of nationalism and cosmopolitanism "both used the Tokyo Trial as a reference point to articulate their commemorative positions" (p. 129). Thus, he calls for a critical reassessment of the trial, which he sees as a key to resolving the history problem (p. 153). This should be done, Saito argues, through an examination that will, first, fairly distribute war responsibility between Japan and the Allied Powers; second, double Japan's identity as perpetrator and victim; third, address the share of the Japanese citizens' responsibility in the war; and, finally, be facilitated by greater and self-critical American involvement (pp. 136–154). In light of this discussion, Saito explores in Chapter 6 the potential role of historians—as "epistemically oriented rooted cosmopolitans" (pp. 156–161)—in the history problem. By demonstrating in what ways said potential is constrained, he prepares the ground for the Conclusion chapter, where he offers a "cautiously affirmative" (p. 178) answer to the main research question.

Saito claims that what is required is "mutual cosmopolitan commemoration" which "is already embodied by the joint historical research and education projects" (p. 179). He conceptualizes the idea of a Japanese "satisfactory apology" and argues that it is crucial to the process of mutual cosmopolitan commemorations [End Page 649] (pp. 180–186). He then adopts a "pragmatist position" (pp. 186–188) to maintain that the younger Japanese generations, himself included, bear "commemorative responsibility" "to fully acknowledge Japan's past wrongdoings" and press Japan's government "to offer a satisfactory apology" (p. 186). Finally, given both the centrality of the Tokyo Trial in the history problem and the potential that joint history and education projects have in resolving it, Saito recommends a number of changes to allow historians a more effective role in the process: first, the three governments should provide more support to joint projects, while they should also be ready to incorporate outcomes that contradict their official positions into their commemorations; second, American historians who are willing to critically explore their country's nationalist commemoration should be involved in these projects too; third, historians should engage more actively with the public; and fourth, history education in the three countries has to be reformed. In this regard, he asserts that "cosmopolitan historical literacy," which is based on both "cosmopolitan logic" and the development of cognitive critical skills, should be fostered (pp. 189–195). Finally, as promising as mutual cosmopolitan commemoration is in resolving the history problem, Saito correctly acknowledges that the question remains of "whether the governments and citizens in the three countries are willing to further it" (p. 195).

Thus, Saito presents a critical and informative account that draws on relevant theoretical literature and sheds light on how governments, politicians, NGOs, historians, educators, the media, and others have debated over, and affected the shape of, historical memory and commemoration. The book is very readable too—the Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion chapters are clearly written, the text flows smoothly, and Saito is punctilious in providing succinct and helpful summaries of key points and arguments throughout the narrative.

With regard to shortcomings, I found no major flaws in this thoroughly thought out study. Prospective readers should bear in mind, however, that despite what the book's subtitle might imply—namely, the politics of war commemoration in East Asia—the main focus of The History Problem, which relies on Japanese and English language sources, is Japan. Indeed, Saito provides insightful observations regarding the politics of commemoration in China and South Korea, which are crucial to substantiate his analysis. Yet readers interested in fuller explorations of the complex dynamics and interests behind, and the changes in, the processes that have shaped collective memory and war commemoration in these two countries, should look elsewhere. To be sure, this does not detract from the force of the book's arguments pertaining to commemoration politics in Japan and to how transnational interactions have [End Page 650] influenced them, nor to the role mutual cosmopolitan commemoration might play in resolving said problem.

A mild criticism of the book concerns other minor issues. Saito depicts Kim Hak Sun as "one of the former comfort women" (p. 81), yet this is an understatement. In fact, Kim played a crucial role in drawing attention to, and advancing, the "comfort women" issue by being the first woman to come forward and publically testify about her experience. Also, when Saito explores the tensions in the region during the year 2005 (pp. 110–112), he fails to refer to what the Japanese and South Korean governments designated as "Korea-Japan Friendship Year 2005" to mark the fortieth anniversary of the normalization treaty under the catchphrase: "Toward the Future, Together Into the World." At the same time, a few pages into this chapter Saito does mention (p. 123) the fortieth anniversary of the 1972 normalization between Japan and China. Another minor issue concerns North Korea, which is hardly mentioned in the book. Saito states in the Conclusion that North Korea's entry into the field of the history problem "will be a game changer" (p. 197), yet it would have been interesting to hear a little more about his thoughts on this intriguing possibility. Finally, many of the names mentioned in the body of the text were omitted from the Index, most likely—and if so, understandably—because of editorial considerations. I still believe, though, that more high profile figures germane to the discussion at hand—for example, Yasukuni Shrine chief priest Matsudaira Nagayoshi (mentioned on p. 61), Kim Hak Sun (p. 81), and Ōe Kenzaburo (p. 107)—should have been indexed too.

These small issues aside, Prof. Saito's The History Problem is a well-researched, lucid, and engaging book, which is highly recommended for anyone interested in the craft of the historian and in the politics of historical memory and commemoration and their place in international relations. [End Page 651]

Guy Podoler
University of Haifa