Nationalism is at least as much about emotions as it is about territorial boundaries. Often, the feeling of pain and humiliation from the collective remembrance of past injustices done to one’s nation evokes the most powerful emotions of all. The three East Asian nations of China, Japan, and South Korea are all linked in a web of national victim narratives in which each nation sees itself as the victim of the others.

South Koreans feel wronged by Japan, which colonized their country for three decades and drafted hundreds of thousands of Koreans as forced laborers and sex slaves, commonly referred to as “comfort women.” Koreans are also wary of Chinese tactics of interference in domestic affairs on the Korean Peninsula, which reminds many of the historical struggles fought by Korean kingdoms against successive Chinese imperial dynasties. China, on the other hand, seeing itself as a historically benevolent power, feels it is being oppressed by American-allied South Korea. The US, in the eyes of many Chinese nationalists, intends to repeat history by subjugating China, just like European empires did during the “Century of Humiliation,” as the period between the First Opium War in 1839 and the end of WWII is known, when the country was repeatedly attacked by European colonial powers and carved up in a state of semi-colonialism, culminating in an all-out Japanese invasion.  

Chinese remembrance of Japanese atrocities during WWII is also ever-present, as they are a major part of the national history education curriculum, and are observed in several annual commemorative days, such as “National Humiliation Day” on September 18, which commemorates the Japanese annexation of Manchuria. Japan itself feels bullied by China’s territorial ambitions, including China’s claim for the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu in China), and Korea’s insistence on apologies and reparations for atrocities that many in Japan believe are overblown and malevolently opportunistic. The atomic bomb lies at the center of a national narrative of Japanese hardships endured by its people during the war. Rather than focusing on the suffering that Japan caused during WWII, as modern-day Germany does with its own involvement, Japanese education glances over many of these details.

Having an honest historical discussion is difficult. Japanese schoolchildren are not taught about the atrocities committed by their forefathers during WWII. The brutal way in which Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula is not part of the school curriculum, nor are the tens of millions of Chinese casualties during the war. Atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre that left at least 200,000 Chinese civilians dead or the existence of 400,000 “comfort women,” are rarely mentioned. Instead, the Japanese narrative highlights the suffering of the Japanese people during the war. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are integral parts of history education and Japanese victims are commemorated annually. One in ten of these victims were actually Korean, many of whom forced laborers, but they are usually not part of the official commemoration. Commonly omitted from the narrative of Japanese victimization is the fact that the two destroyed cities were strategic military targets, with Nagasaki having been a major military port and Hiroshima a center for munitions production, including poison gas.

Chinese pupils are well aware of such historical facts. The many atrocities their ancestors endured during the Japanese occupation are an essential part of their history education from early on. Hence, it is infuriating to them when Japanese politicians publicly deny that any civilians died in Nanjing, or claim that hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Korean women willingly served Japanese soldiers as prostitutes, even though the vast majority of them perished in horrific conditions. Chinese students know by heart that 35 million Chinese died during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (as WWII is known in China), and they can also recite the many wars Western forces fought against China during the Century of Humiliation. However, they are unaware of the man-made famine under Mao Zedong’s leadership that killed even more Chinese than the Japanese did.     

Another education gap in China is the wars of aggression China’s imperial dynasties fought against its neighbors, including Korea. After all, an Empire cannot expand as massively as China did under the dynasties of Qin, Han, Ming, and Qing without at least some aggressive warfare. Approved Chinese history education depicts the Chinese dynasties as peaceful and unifying forces that aided the Korean kingdoms whenever needed. Hence, Chinese fans of Korean pop culture are perplexed when they come across historical Korean TV dramas in which the Korean king must constantly be on guard against a Chinese invasion. To Korean consumers, such themes are only natural.

South Korea’s educational curriculum boasts a long list of stories of humiliation and victimization. It features many accounts of ancient Japanese and Chinese dynasties invading the Peninsula, followed by the still-painful colonization by Japan and subsequent forceful conscription of hundreds of thousands of Koreans, after which the country was separated from its northern half. Soon thereafter, the north invaded in a bloody war that destroyed virtually the entire country and killed millions, leaving survivors as citizens of one of the poorest countries on Earth. The rapid industrialization of South Korea finally brought wealth      — but under the iron leadership of authoritarian presidents. It should therefore come as no surprise that the South Korean identity is not only filled with pride for South Korea’s economic achievements and robust democracy, but also one marred by a painful and humiliating past and a longing for restitution. 

Japanese right-wing politicians’ insistence that Japan has no obligation to pay wartime reparations, based on a half-century-old agreement with the Korean government, causes deep-rooted anger, as do the repeated denials of wartime atrocities. The authoritarian Korean dictator-president Park Chung-hee, who gave up on demands for restitution in 1965, did so without democratic consent and only to receive greatly-needed development aid. In other words, Korea needed money and agreed to waive its right to restitution in return.

Because of this long history of victimhood, one might expect the Korean government to be susceptible to needing to admit one’s historical wrongdoings and to offer restitution. And yet there is the case of Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, South Korea was the second-largest foreign contributor of troops after the U.S., with over 300,000 South Korean soldiers fighting alongside South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. In recent years, evidence has emerged that while there, Korean soldiers perpetrated dozens of massacres, killing thousands of civilians, and raping hundreds. 

The Korean government has so far not apologized officially, nor has it offered compensation. The Vietnamese government shies away from bringing up this issue as South Korea is now one of Vietnam’s most prominent investors. In other words, just like South Korea before it, Vietnam needs money and agrees to waive its right to restitution in return. The idea of Korea as a perpetrator is so contrary to its powerful victim narrative that such discussions are taboo. This taboo includes the topic of Korean collaborators during WWII, and books addressing this subject are commonly banned and their authors are routinely sued for defamation.

There is at the moment little hope for overcoming each country’s mutually destructive victim narrative since nobody wants to take the first step and admit their narrative’s inherent paradoxes. Japanese hardliners are not interested in accepting the harm inflicted, nor will they concede that reparations for their forefathers’ crimes were insufficient. Chinese wolf-warrior diplomats are quick to call out historical incidents in which their nation had been wronged but are oblivious to the suffering Chinese governments have caused throughout history. Korean officials, while quick to point out still-open wounds of wartime atrocities committed against their people and the need for official apologies, are themselves unwilling to acknowledge the war crimes committed by South Korea in Vietnam. The one thing they all agree on, however, is that they themselves are the real victims of history.

Edited by Sandra Edelbacher; Photo Credits to Alexandra Motica