Japan has a saying: history is a nice hobby but don’t make a career out of it. Like religion and philosophy, history is a creation of the human mind, a narrative, a story, an expedient to make a point. It isn’t about the past, it’s about the human beings telling stories in the present. And when it’s a big story it’s about what people want in the here and now: attention, power, prestige, money, or all of the above. The Korean Comfort Women issue is a complex, instructive lesson that illustrates these points.
The military abduction story grew from early unsubstantiated claims from Seiji Yoshida in the 1980’s, later proven by South Korean researchers to be lies. However it launched endless claims of military abductions, again later proven by South Korean researchers to be false. Regardless that credible, verifiable evidence supporting military abduction claims has yet to appear, the very lack is taken to be proof that it did happen by activists and scholars invested in a story that keeps them well employed.
And so it goes. But here’s the interesting thing so well said by evil old Henry Kissinger: ‘unresolved’ history issues are convenient tools that serve all sides. They are unresolved for a reason. In other words it’s never about ‘righting’ the past or resolving it, it’s negotiating and counter negotiating what you want at any given time, the needs of the moment.
One little known aspect of the Korean comfort women and wartime labor dispute is that only after both issues were raised by activist groups in Japan did they become issues in South Korea. Over time we have seen the various ways it plays out in local politics and media, both in South Korea and Japan, and how the story adapts to political needs of the moment. In the needs of the moment, the very people activists claim to be helping end up being used for somebody else’s political and monetary gain.
We see similar things playing out now in America’s umpteenth ‘Great Awakening’, aka the 1619 project portrayed in traditional and social media. Unfortunately, American culture accepts any historical narrative at face value without seeing or questioning the manipulations behind it…manipulations that older cultures in Europe and especially Asia, are adept at seeing and circumventing. That’s another way of saying they don’t make history into religion which Americans sometimes do, unless it’s for profit.
Anytime you hear or read about ‘righting’ history, think carefully and ask yourself: who’s invested in this and why, what do they want in the here and now? Nothing in the present can fix what is dead and gone. All we can do is try to learn from it with the knowledge that history narratives are imperfect human creations like any other, any ultimate truth from it is ultimately unobtainable. If you really want to honor the past there is only one course of action: leave history in the past and build a better future. Because if history isn’t resting peacefully in books, it’s out there making mischief.