Panel 3.

Regionalism, Diplomacy, and the Power Politics of Remembrance

Chair: Dr. Mark Frost (Essex University)

The panel will explore how bilateral and regional relations drive the commemoration of war in Asia (and vice versa). The panel has a natural hierarchy:

  • An exploration of intra-state politics (Dr Muzaini);

  • Narratives that ebb and flow with changing bilateral relations (Prof Vickers);

  • Symbiotic relationship between diplomatic tension, cooperation in the region and war memory (Prof. Winter).  

Speaker 1.

Dr. Hamzah Muzaini (Wageningen University)

'Postcolonialising' Memoryscapes of the Second World War within State Museums in Perak, Malaysia

This paper examines how the state of Perak has commemorated its involvement in the Second World War (1942-45) since the nation’s independence in 1957. Drawing on the textual analysis of its state museums where there are attempts to formally mark the event, and interviews conducted with state officials and ordinary Perakians, it first examines how the state has sought to ‘postcolonialise’ representations of what took place when Malaysia was still part of British Malaya in order to allow the event to better resonate with its population. (To ‘postcolonialise’ here refers to the critique and subsequent re-appropriation of imperial memories as an attempt to salvage and recuperate more ‘localised’ pasts and experiences that may have been marginalised during colonial times). It then highlights how these official representations of the war have been popularly criticised by local Perakians as partial to certain perspectives of the war that have in turn served to alienate them from their pasts. The paper more broadly demonstrates how the task of ‘postcolonialising’ history is necessarily an incomplete one, especially where, among other factors, there is also still the neo-colonial impulse to privilege certain groups in memory-making albeit at the clear expense of others.

Speaker 2.

Prof. Edward Vickers (Kyushu University)

Exhibiting the Unmentionable: The politics of commemorating 'comfort women' in contemporary China

This paper examines recent shifts in policy on mainland China relating to the public discussion of the ‘comfort women’ issue – and, in particular, the representation of the history of wartime sexual slavery in museums and memorials. It discusses how, for a long time, the Communist authorities remained unwilling either to draw public attention to this history, or to deploy it for purposes of diplomatic one-upmanship vis-à-vis Japan. Some of the earliest efforts to exhibit this history within China in fact involved Japanese civil society groups in partnership with local activists, sometimes working without official approval. Since around 2010-11, however, as Sino-Japanese relations have deteriorated, the Chinese state has for the first time shown an active interest in ‘weaponising’ the ‘comfort women’ issue, co-opting prominent researchers and sponsoring moves to register related documents on UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ List. It has thus moved rapidly from a position of offering at best tepid support for ‘comfort women’ campaigning, to energetically promoting collaboration with other Asian nations to secure international recognition for their cause (and even competing with Korea for the mantle of chief Asian victim of the ‘comfort women’ system). Nonetheless, it is argued here that key individuals in the movement for ‘comfort women’ commemoration have played a significant role in ensuring that the tenor in which this episode is memorialized differs significantly from that of mainstream public discourse on the war. 

Speaker 3.

Prof. Tim Winter (Deakin University)

Twentieth Century Conflict and the Diplomatics of Heritage in Asia

Today the preservation and commemoration of cultural heritage in Asia occupies a complex place in an increasingly integrated and interconnected region. In comparison to ten years ago we are seeing a significant growth in the level of international hostility concerning the past and its remembrance. Histories of conflict, for example, are the source of ongoing tension in East Asia at a time of escalating militarisation. The diplomatic tensions between Japan, Korea and China concerning the events of World War 2 are being further exacerbated by the approach of museums in the region and attempts to have remnants - whether it be buildings, letters or landscapes - recognised by international heritage agencies.

At the same time however, we are also seeing major growth in the scale and scope in international cooperation between countries across Asia regarding the preservation of the past. Heritage conservation is fast emerging as an important component of the intra-regional economic and political ties that are binding states and populations in the region. In the coming decade one initiative in particular will take this heritage diplomacy to a whole new level, China’s One Belt One Road. This ambitious initiative foregrounds ideas of connectivity, exchange and networks, using the narrative of the Silk Roads - overland and maritime - to establish a narrative of Eurasian ‘shared Silk Road heritage’. This presentation focuses on this new imagining of Asia’s past and its conflicts, and considers the degree to which such an emphasis on trade and exchange reshapes ideas about the Asian heritage and, even world history.

Speaker 4.

Dr Hiro Saito (Singapore Management University)

The Role of Historians in East Asia’s History Problem

Seventy years have passed since the end of the Asia-Pacific War, yet Japan remains embroiled in controversy over the war’s commemoration with its two most important neighbors, China and South Korea. To understand the dynamic and trajectory of this controversy—commonly known as “East Asia’s history problem”—I argue that it is crucial to pay attention to the role of historians in the politics of commemoration. Although historians are regarded as experts providing authoritative data and interpretations, they are also overwhelmed by nationalist commemorations practiced by the governments, NGOs, and other political actors willing to sacrifice historiographical rigor for political expediency. I first explain why the potential of historians to problematize nationalist commemoration, a main cause of the history problem, has been constrained in East Asia. I then explore how that potential might be realized through various forms of “historians’ debate” that will critically re-examine the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, around which nationalist commemorations in Japan, China, and South Korea have revolved. In conclusion, I recast East Asia’s history problem as a case of transitional justice on a transnational scale, which interlocks unredressed historical injustices across Asia-Pacific, to reflect on the role of historians in the politics of justice.