Global Dialogues

Putting World War II to “Rest?” Opening a Dialogue about Northeast Asia

Recent struggles in Northeast Asia between Japan and its neighbors South Korea and China illustrate well Robin Wagner-Pacifici’s notion of the “restlessness of events.” Current territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Daiyoutai and Takeshima/Dokdo islands, as well as the uproar over the collective memory of World War II tragedies, such as the recent flare up of debate regarding Korean sex slaves, suggest that the notion that the end date of the Pacific War was 1945 may not be accurate. In some ways, the event, the world war, is continuing, and, in recent months, it’s escalating.

Governments in Northeast Asia are engaged in the escalation, but also in attempting to diplomatically calm the ongoing conflicts. Non-governmental groups also are involved, with some egging on confrontation and others trying to settle it, and still more attempting to highlight larger long-term interests over present-day concerns. My specific interest is with those non-governmental efforts that are attempting to foster peaceful coexistence, to put a final end to the great event, WWII. Through this posting, I hope to initiate a dialogue here on Deliberately Considered about the role that civil society can play in reconciliation, or at least in de-escalating tensions.

At the “end” of the Pacific War, non-governmental groups played a significant role in transforming the people of the United States and Japan from enemies to friends through carefully crafted and well-funded educational and cultural exchange programs, funded by private philanthropies such as The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Henry Luce Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The JDR III Fund, The Asia Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Religious organizations played a role as well. All Souls Church in Washington, DC, for example, developed a program to send art supplies to elementary school children in Hiroshima as a method for achieving reconciliation. A film titled Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard has just been completed that focuses on this story. In addition, Christians in both the US and Japan raised funds to develop what today is Japan’s leading liberal arts college, International Christian University (ICU), which was developed as a place of reconciliation between Americans and Japanese. It is built on the grounds of the former Nakashima aircraft company, which was designing a long-range bomber to bomb New York City. Transforming war to peace is built into the DNA of this institution.

Due to the unique history of ICU as a place of reconciliation, as well as its ongoing work in this area, the Aspen Institute elected to hold its most recent Cultural Diplomacy Forum there. The Art of Peace-building and Reconciliation, the fifth cultural diplomacy forum (and first in Asia), hosted 100 selected individuals from around the world for three days this past October to explore ways in which the arts, culture and the media can help overcome conflict and hatred and foster more peaceful societies and international relations. Bahia Shehab, a street artist (and also an Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo where she teaches graphic design) from Egypt, told us about her work to promote freedom there; another artist, Mundano, from Brazil illustrated his goal in life to make invisible people visible and, in the process, helping to improve their lives. He does this especially with those who make a living recycling waste materials (see his website here). Charles Bailey, Director of the Aspen Institute’s Agent Orange Program gave a very moving and powerful account of how Agent Orange in Vietnam continues to cause birth defects, and how this program at Aspen is leading a very real effort to remove all of it.

I was particularly struck by the work of three individuals I met at the Forum, Rev. Katsuhiko Seino, Dr. Haiping Liu, and Ms. Yukiyo Kawano.

Reverend Seino is a pastor at a small Christian church in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, who directs a program there that takes Japanese people to South Korea to meet former sex slaves (formerly known as comfort women, who are generally seen to have been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military) in order to apologize to them and foster reconciliation with them.

Dr. Liu, a Professor at Nanjing University, runs a joint China-Japan theater project that led to a production about the Nanjing massacre with Japanese and Chinese students involved.

Ms. Kawano, a Japanese visual artist focuses her work on the history and memory of World War II. At the conference, she displayed two art pieces that were exact replicas of the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but made from kimono. She used her grandmother’s kimono, a Hiroshima hibakusha (survivor), to create the representation of Little Boy (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), which in my mind instantly and powerfully weaved together the bomb and the human victims.

In different ways, these three individuals are working with the “restless” event of World War II. Using different forms, they are creating better futures by dealing with painful memories. They endeavor to put this “event” to rest by dealing with it in subtle, complex, and authentic ways, instead of hiding or denying it. They are doing this in direct contrast to zealous nationalists who, in effect, work to keep this event alive, using it to promote their own gain, political clout or power, money for the military, or simply to fan public emotions.

I wonder how the efforts of the Japanese pastor, Chinese professor, and Japanese visual artist can scale up their work to eventually influence the states in which they live, as well as the governments of other states, to settle the enduring conflict in a more peaceful manner.

And the plot thickens as the U.S. becomes involved: on November 29, 2012 the Senate unanimously approved an Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 that reaffirms Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku islands. The Amendment also articulates the U.S. commitment to defend Japan under Article V of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, indicating clearly that the U.S. will not change its mind due to “unilateral actions of a third party,” and stipulating that the US supports a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the disputes over this territory. Senators Jim Webb, James Inhofe, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain co-sponsored the amendment. While Americans are not likely to support going to war with China over uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, such possibility exists.

In addition, battles over the Korean sex slaves was brought to the United States this past summer when Japanese Diet Members requested that the mayor of Palisades, New Jersey remove a monument to Korean sex slaves that was placed in that town by Korea-Americans. After request to remove the monument was refused, some Japanese people began a petition on the Whitehouse.gov website, demanding that the Obama administration force the Mayor of Palisades to remove the monument. This led to an escalation in the conflict. Soon thereafter, a second monument was erected in Long Island and more are apparently being planned. The dispute became so serious that Korea and Japan broke off a deal to share national security information.

As World War II continues to haunt Northeast Asia (due to word count limitations I have left out countless details and examples), one of the most dynamic regions of the world and a region in which the United States is intricately involved, I think that it is worth exploring the role that independent citizens and associations can play in preventing conflict and in promoting long-term reconciliation between and among the people of different states.

My invitation: I hope readers of Deliberately Considered will offer statements, suggestions, and stories about ways in which non-governmental organizations have successfully, or unsuccessfully, played a role in de-escalating conflict and promoting peaceful reconciliation, how they might contribute to putting WWII to rest. These can be very grassroots efforts such as those between civil groups, sister cities, and individual organizations, or can be more “high level” non-government efforts of Track II dialogues run by think-tanks, for example. Furthermore, it is my hope we can then better understand the ways in which some of these activities grow, spread, and in effect gain power, or fail. In Jeff’s terms, I hope we can understand the conditions and consequences of the politics of small things in an important corner of the world.



  • Robert

    Thank you for this article. We have a small organization called Hibakusha Stories that has brought over 75 atomic bomb survivors to over 10,000 NYC high school students in a project of remembrance responsibility, forgiveness and nuclear disarmament. May more people do similar work.