History Problem: The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
264pp. December 2016
The History Problem: The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
Author: Saito, Hiro;
Seventy years have passed since the end of the Asia-Pacific War, yet Japan remains embroiled in controversy with its neighbors over the war’s commemoration. Among the many points of contention between Japan, China, and South Korea are interpretations of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, apologies and compensation for foreign victims of Japanese aggression, prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and the war’s portrayal in textbooks. Collectively, these controversies have come to be called the “history problem.” But why has the problem become so intractable? Can it ever be resolved, and if so, how?

To answer these questions author Hiro Saito mobilizes the sociology of collective memory and social movements, political theories of apology and reconciliation, psychological research on intergroup conflict, and philosophical reflections on memory and history. The history problem, he argues, is essentially a relational phenomenon caused when nations publicly showcase self-serving versions of the past at key ceremonies and events: Japan, South Korea, and China all focus on what happened to their own citizens with little regard for foreign others. Saito goes on to explore the emergence of a cosmopolitan form of commemoration taking humanity, rather than nationality, as its primary frame of reference, an approach increasingly used by a transnational network of advocacy NGOs, victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings, historians, and educators. When cosmopolitan commemoration is practiced as a collective endeavor by both perpetrators and victims, Saito argues, a resolution of the history problem—and eventual reconciliation—will finally become possible.

The History Problem examines a vast corpus of historical material in both English and Japanese, offering provocative findings that challenge orthodox explanations. Written in clear and accessible prose, this uniquely interdisciplinary book will appeal to sociologists, political scientists, and historians researching collective memory, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and international relations—and to anyone interested in the commemoration of historical wrongs.

"Hiro Saito offers a timely and well-researched analysis of East Asia’s never-ending cycle of blame and denial, distortion and obfuscation concerning the region’s shared history of violence and destruction during the first half of the twentieth century. In The History Problem Saito smartly introduces the central “us versus them” issues and confronts readers with the multiple layers that bind the East Asian countries involved to show how these problems are mutually constituted across borders and generations. He argues that the inextricable knots that constrain these problems could be less like a hangman’s noose and more of a supportive web if there were the political will to determine the virtues of peaceful coexistence. Anything less, he explains, follows an increasingly perilous path forward on which nationalist impulses are encouraged to derail cosmopolitan efforts at engagement. Readers of all levels of these issues will benefit from Saito’s lucid command of the post-1945 terrain as well as his thoughtful suggestions for cooperation and coexistence." –Alexis Dudden, University of Connecticut

"The History Problem is a powerful analysis of how commemoration and the controversies that arise from it overflow the so-called container of the nation-state. Memory, Saito, demonstrates, is a transnational, even cosmopolitan issue. As a result, only the kind of multidirectional analysis Saito provides is adequate to memory’s complexities, which are of glaring importance in world politics. This book thus makes a crucial and nuanced contribution to the fields of memory studies, international politics, and the historiography of Northeast Asia." –Jeffrey K. Olick, University of Virginia
Author: Saito, Hiro;
Hiro Saito is assistant professor of sociology at Singapore Management University.