Nationalism clouds WWII memories in Asia, says Stanford scholar

Stanford scholar Daniel Sneider says that historical memories about World War II in Japan, China and Korea still influence politics among these nations and fuel tensions over a past that could once again trigger conflict.

AP Photo/U.S. Air Force atomic bomb over Nagasaki

Stanford scholars studied the treatment of the war in the Pacific in the textbooks of Japan, China, Korea and the United States to examine how formal education shapes historical understanding.

Unsettled World War II memories continue to stir up tension in Northeast Asia, but it is time to confront the deep wounds in places like Japan, China and Korea, says a Stanford expert.

Daniel Sneider, the associate director of research at Stanford's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, writes in a new book that while wartime narratives serve the needs of regimes in China, Korea and Japan, they have exacerbated recent territorial disputes almost to the point of armed conflict.

"The past in Northeast Asia is very much a part of the present," wrote Sneider in Confronting Memories of World War II: European and Asian Legacies, which was co-edited by Stanford's Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein APARC, and Daniel Chirot from the University of Washington. "The existence of distinct historical memories is a central obstacle to the ability of Asian nations to finally reconcile their still profound tensions over the wartime past."

Whether Japanese atrocities in China, China's exaggerated account of its Communist fighters' role in World War II or the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, no nation is immune to recreating the past to further its own identity and purposes, Sneider said.

"Formal education is a powerful force in shaping our historical understandings," he said. Sneider and his colleagues examined the treatment of the wartime period in the Pacific in the textbooks and films of Japan, China, Korea and the United States. They also conducted interviews with elite opinion makers involved in the shaping of historical memory in those countries.

"We wanted to look at the textbooks that have the most impact and usage," he said.

The research was carried out under Stanford's project on Divided Memories and Reconciliation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Begun in 2006 and led by Sneider and Shin, the project is a long-term study of historical memories during the wartime period in Asia. These research efforts, the Shorenstein APARC scholars said, are contributing to current discussions among leading scholars in Asia and America about how to find some healing on the issue.

Some Asian governments, Sneider said, have used the project's research in seeking "pathways of reconciliation."


In Japan, most of the textbooks are factual and not overly nationalistic, Sneider said. While that is a plus, they are too often a "dry chronology" of events and dates, leaving few opportunities to engage and motivate students through critical-thinking exercises.

One misleading perception of Japan in the West, China and Korea is that Japan's most nationalistic textbooks are in widespread use, he said. But it's not true, according to Sneider. Heavy media coverage of a few provocative Japanese textbooks somewhat distorts reality. Those textbooks – produced by one Japanese publisher – are used in less than 1 percent of Japanese classrooms.

Still, the textbook controversy has contributed to the perception that Japan has not done enough to confront its culpability in World War II, whereas Germany has done so, he noted.

Sneider said the revisionist conservative narrative about the war in Japan gets the most attention, but it does not necessarily reflect Japan's prevailing war memory. A wide spectrum of opinions exists.

"If there is a dominant narrative in Japan," wrote Sneider, "it is the pacifist narrative." This viewpoint considers war as the enemy and leads to the conclusion that no one country – including Japan – can be held wholly responsible for WWII.

Geopolitics makes the Japanese case different than Germany's, he said. Germany confronted its wartime past so it could reassert German leadership in Europe at a time when a unified Cold War stand against the Soviet Union encouraged reconciliation.

On the other hand, Japan, at the urging of the United States, was positioned in a long-term Cold War confrontation with its principal victim in World War II, China. As a result, little motivation existed for Japan to look deeply at its atrocities against China, Sneider said.

China and Korea

The Cold War and its aftermath influenced the formation of wartime memories in both China and South Korea.

The Chinese textbooks that Sneider and his colleagues examined have evolved from a more classic Marxist view since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The government embarked on a "patriotic education" campaign to indoctrinate young people.

"The assertion of China's role as the architect of Japan's defeat is now central," wrote Sneider, "along with China's victimization at the hands of a brutal and criminal invader. It is a narrative that suits the nationalist mobilization of a populace no longer motivated by neo-communist ideology."

South Korea offers a similar case of "shifting national narratives," said Sneider. There, Japan's harsh colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945 and the Korean War loom large in the collective national memory. Consequently, the dominant national narrative in South Korean textbooks was one of unified national resistance to Japanese rule, at least until the democratic overthrow of the military-led government in 1987.

"That version of wartime memory is still entrenched in Korean textbooks and public narratives," said Sneider, though South Korea's democratic growth and the end of the Cold War have brought a fresh effort to reengage the issue, including the sensitive issue of Korean collaboration with Japanese occupiers.


Sneider describes U.S. textbooks as more comprehensive and encouraging of critical-thinking skills.

For example, only the U.S. textbooks present the continuing debate over the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. This is not done in Japan, and in Korea, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not even mentioned, he noted.

Still, America engages in its own myth-making, said Sneider. It tends to portray itself as an "innocent abroad" without any culpability and that its troops were "fighting the good war." But the historical truth is more complex, he added.

"Everybody constructs their own narrative to fit their own image of themselves," he added. "Some narratives are more honest than others."

The United States, Sneider and Shin have written, can play a leading role in encouraging greater dialogue and understanding. It bears some responsibility toward creating these dysfunctional memories – as in Japan and Korea – and it is clear that the rising nationalism in such Asian countries is not likely to fade away.

The biggest issue, Sneider suggested, should be compensation for all individual victims of the system of forced labor the Japanese used during wartime – including "comfort women" who were coerced into sexual servitude.

Sneider and Shin's comparative study of textbooks has been incorporated into a classroom supplemental textbook published by the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education. The 160-page document examines popular history textbooks from five Asian societies in light of 20th-century issues.

Students, said Sneider, are asked to confront the possible bias of their own historical memory and to be more critical consumers of information.

Daniel Sneider, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center: (650) 724-5667,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,