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China, Korea and Japan: Forgiveness and Mourning

by Peter J. Seybolt, Center for Asian Studies
University of Vermont

At the turn of the millennium, the relations of the three great nations of East Asia-China, Korea, and Japan-hang in the balance. Distrust and resentment, a legacy of decades of conflict in the 19th and 20th centuries shadow prospects for a brighter era of peace and cooperation in the 21st. Today, the peoples of East Asia are increasingly engaged in trade and cultural exchange. They are also arming themselves against the prospect of future belligerence.

Wars in East Asia-beginning with armed struggle between China and Japan in 1894-95 to determine the fate of Korea and culminating with eight years of bitter conflict during World War II-claimed tens of millions of lives. Memories of the Nanjing massacre, the sexual exploitation of "comfort Women," criminal medical experimentation, slave labor, and other such atrocities committed more than half a century ago still affect relations today.

The barbarities of recent wars must not be forgotten. Like the holocaust in Europe, they must serve to remind us continually of human capacity for evil. But is retribution for crimes committed a path to redemption? Does forgiveness offer a better prospect of a peaceful future? And who is to be forgiven? Are succeeding generations responsible for the crimes of their forbears? Are whole nations culpable or only the individuals who lead them?

Those are questions that are not easily answered. But the history of the three East Asian countries offers a distinctive prospect for future reconciliation and cooperation. For over two thousand years the peoples of China, Korea, and Japan lived mostly at peace with each other and developed similar institutions, values, and customs. Tools, techniques and material goods as well as ideas were shared by China, Korea, and Japan and adapted to local circumstances to become distinctive parts of a common culture. Techniques of wetland rice agriculture became the basis of prosperity and cultural development throughout East Asia; illiteracy was dispelled by the spread of Chinese writing; Buddhism became the principal religion throughout the area; and Confucianism deeply influenced social and political institutions and eventually became the official state cult in all three countries. Indications of a shared culture are readily apparent as well in the literature, art and architecture of the three countries. The structure and appearance of public buildings, landscape painting, Buddhist sculpture, ceramic ware, and poetry in the pre-modern era is immediately recognizable as variations on common themes and techniques.

During two millennia of cultural assimilation and adaptation there had been, to be sure, relatively brief periods of belligerence, such as the Mongol conquest of China and Korea in the 12th century, and two subsequent abortive attempts to conquer Japan by Mongol-led Chinese and Korean troops. There was also an unsuccessful attempt in the 16th century by the great unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to conquer China and Korea. But these and other periods of conflict were exceptions to an amicable norm. Indeed, for almost 300 years between 1600 and the late 19th century there was undisturbed peace.