【Online Forum】 War and Peace: Sharing Narratives in Asia

On the National Liberation day of Korea / India’s independent day / Japan’s memorial day for the end of the war, THE LEADS ASIA held an online forum on the theme of War & Peace.

Total 25 participants from 11 countries all over the world, including speakers from North and South East Asian region of Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines and Taiwan gathered to share inherited historical memories regarding the war in respective communities, as well as participants with various backgrounds from Russia, India, America, Nigeria and Australia also joined to enrich and deepen the dialogue. In addition, we had the honor of inviting professors from Waseda University and Toyo University, a peace education expert from NPO Holocaust Education Center in Tokyo, providing with their broad expertise.

In Japan, 1945 August 15th is remembered as the day on which decades-long war finally ended with the emperor’s sensational radio announcement, which came as a total bolt out of the blue to the Japanese who were —despite having been devastated by the severe starvation, daily bombing in big cities, the bloody land battle in Okinawa and 2 atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still made to believe in the invincible army’s glorious successive triumphs by the government’s propaganda. 

However, even inside Japan, memories and narratives of the war are far from being monolithic; everyone holds different ideas and memories inherited from their own relatives and communities they grew up in. The narrative mentioned above regarding August 15th, 75 years ago is of the writer who was born, raised and educated in the Tokyo area for the entire time of her life. For someone who grew up inheriting memories of older generations in Okinawa, for instance, would look significantly different. 

Within the scope of East Asia and Southeast Asia, even after 75 years from Japan’s official surrender, a number of unresolved historical disputes have been hindering the region from stepping forward for building a firm, cooperative relationship in a sustainable way. The heavy differences of memories are not only due to the passing down of Aggressor-Victim relations during the war, but also largely due to the geopolitical and socioeconomic situations consecutively happened in each country of Asia during the post-war times.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 The online session was conducted as follows:

Supporting Questions

  1. What are the 3 words first come up to your mind when you associate WWⅡ? And why you chose those 3?
  2. Do you have any relatives/friends who actually experienced it? What do those people tell you about the war?
  3. What and who do you think influenced you the most in shaping your view, ideas and opinion about the war? 
  4. After hearing your members, do you think it’s possible to universalize the memories of each community? If so, in what way would that be possible? If not, why?

Small group sharing (9-10 people each) 

  • TLA members from East Asia / Southeast Asia answering the supporting questions 
  • participants from other regions asking questions & additing up their perspectives

Big group discussion (20+ people)

  • sharing what was discussed in the small group
  • casual Q&A with everyone 
  • raising open questions
  • experts giving some hints

✖︎ 2 sets

Participants were astonished to find out the differences and commonalities in the war narratives shared across regions. While the frequent key words include: “fear” “weapons” “Hunger” “Japan” “Independence” or “Suffering”, some participants added words original to their community.

A speaker from Malaysia chose a word “Bicycle”, associating with the time when the Japanese troop came to invade on a bicycle from the border of Thailand as opposed to their expectation to come from the coast.

A speaker from South Korea has conducted an interview with her own grand mother in prior to the discussion. Her grand mother remembers 1945 August 15th as “the happiest day in her entire life”, as she thought the long-held suppression would be finally over.

A speaker from Okinawa, shared her grand mother’s memory in which her family decided to escape to the northern side of the island, which they later knew that the southern side got attacked and burned away soon after they evacuated.

Another speaker from Singapore spoke about her grand mother’s memory. She was told by her parents to dress as a boy during the 3 years of Japanese occupation. This speaker further explains the slight generational difference in the war narratives, pointing out that her uncle who did not experience the war is sometimes more severe towards imperialist Japan’s past atrocity, even more than her grand mother who is generally happy about her grand daughter going to a university in Tokyo.

With regards to Q.4 “do you think it’s possible to universalize the memories of each community?”, a participant from Japan said she thinks it would not help solving the issues, raising a significant question; “who are the ones constructing the narrative?” Professor Kyungmook Kim from Waseda University also questioned the idea, saying that no one’s view can be “correct”. A participant from Australia added that having dialogue is the best way to preserve memories, or to construct a more objective narrative.

Professor Charles Cobell, originally from the United States and currently teaching at Toyo and Waseda Universities in Japan has sent us a message.

The Leads Asia was an inspiring event that I was honored to join. Especially impressive was the wide variety of participants, a reflection no doubt of the effort and organizing skills of the leaders. Their careful planning ensured that everything came off smoothly, allowing the rest of us to concentrate on the discussions. I rarely have the occasion to hear young people from such different backgrounds speak frankly about delicate subjects such as contested national memories of WWII, so I was delighted to listen to their perspectives.

The remarks of Lukmon Akintola from Nigeria, Yumi from Okinawa and Ekaterina (Kate) Kologrivaya from Russia were especially memorable. Lukmon spoke of the independence movements in Africa that sprang up in the years following WWII, making clear that for him the break from European domination was unfinished business. He referred to the continuing western domination of certain international organizations and appeared to place himself within a continuing struggle for global equality. Such a view is extremely rare to hear in Japan, making it all the more important. Lukmon’s view suggested an unbroken lineage connecting the past to the present.

This view contrasted with many Japanese participants who seemed to view WWII history as finished business, a violent mistake that we should never repeat. Such a perspective may reflect a sense in Japan that politics ended after the renewal in 1970 of the US-Japan Security Pact, which has led to continued American domination of Japan’s international relations and the LDP’s domination of domestic politics. Perhaps the absence of political conflict invites Japanese young people to see themselves as innocent bystanders in the world. Yumi’s desire to remain ‘neutral’ rather than take a position on US bases in Okinawa suggested a belief in the possibility of positioning herself outside of politics and history.

Kate’s question, on the other hand, about America’s use of the Atomic bombs on Japanese civilian populations made clear that what appears commonsense in one nation can be radical in another. “Who says that the use of the atomic bombs was not a war crime?” she wanted to know. Her question implied a disbelief that anyone could deny such a thing. In Russia, it seems, such acknowledgement is universal. Those of us in Japan, however, know that the opposite is true here. America’s use of the atomic bombs are NEVER discussed as war crimes by the ‘neutral’ mainstream Japanese media. Kate’s straightforward question, for me, laid bare the terrifying historic power of Japanese and American elites to dominate discourse about the use of nuclear weapons. We should all ask: why don’t (or why can’t) Japanese people acknowledge, as Russians do, the use of atomic bombs as a war crime? Such a question may move us closer to Lukmon’s understanding of history as continuous struggle.

Finally, I want to ask Japanese participants to consider not only the problem of contested collective memory, but also the narrowing of what is considered legitimate discourse. One of the hallmarks of creeping fascism is the use of the threat of violence to censor public expression. In Japan, open conversations about the wartime responsibility of the Showa emperor, the Nanking Massacre and the systematic mass rape of ‘comfort women’ is becoming increasingly dangerous. I wonder if any of the participants have been to a public event in Japan focused on any of these topics. If not, that should be reason for concern.

One of the participants from India, Hamsini (@HamsiniH) has shared her thoughts from the session.

15 August has always been special for me because we celebrate Indian Independence Day. This year, the wholesome discussion organised by The Leads Asia made me rethink the way I approached the day as it marks the day of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

We spoke of personal connections to the war, memories and influences, and all the narratives we grew up with. The discussion was inspiring because Japanese aggression is so easily overlooked for people like me (who grew up in Chennai) whose ancestors didn’t really have any political inclinations. We spoke about familial experiences, and trauma but also of the reconstruction-of both identities and alliances.

My friend Lukmon Akintola from Nigeria brought up the experiences of colonisation in Africa and how countries clung onto non-alignment after the end of World War II. It was something that I resonated with. We agreed that narratives of victim-aggressor or coloniser-colonised can’t help us reach a universal experience of the war. I was asked why Britain isn’t viewed with hostility in India the same way Japan is in Korea till today. My guess was that the trauma of Partition showed us that we only had ourselves and our communal identities to blame.

The Partition of British India led to the largest mass migration of people in the world and unprecedented violence. This event shocked our nascent nation shadowed most feelings towards the colonisers. It also cemented the belief that it was national weakness on our parts to allow communalism and divisive forces to subjugate us. (Not a historian. Just thinking aloud) It was also interesting to speak about Japanese education and narratives of the war in East Asia.

What does moving on mean for victimised countries? For victimised countries, does it means forgiving or forgetting? All of this made me wonder: As people (who have direct experience with the war) get older, how do we make sure that the narratives of the war are not hijacked by nationalism? At the same time how do we hold space for our historical experiences and trauma with occupation/colonisation?

Much of this goes back to essential questions of: who creates narratives? Who controls them? Who benefits from them? at what cost? These are the broad questions that I took away from our discussion. I was overwhelmed by the honesty and the openness with which everyone interacted. I’m grateful to the lovely people at The Leads Asia for putting together this safe, shared space for young people.

THE LEADS ASIA, as a platform to unite, inform and inspire the “Generation Zs” across Asia and beyond, we believe it is our responsibility to hold the safe space to share respective memories for a constructive dialogue within the region.  The process of jointly finding a way to look back on history, examining the current world from a viewpoint beyond “who-did-it” or “what-happened” questions, is urgently needed as we are the last generation who could still hear the voices of war survivors.

Thank you for all the participants who shared the precious memories and insights.


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