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Japan’s Korean War: History, Memory and Japanese Combatants in Korea 1950-1953

Posted By admin On May 31, 2013 @ 9:25 am In Abstracts for 2013, History, Philosophy and Religion | Comments Disabled

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Professor

School of Culture, History and Language

College of Asia and the Pacific

Australian National University

The Korean War of 1950-1953 is described, with monotonous regularity, as the ‘forgotten war’, but in the context of Japan history the war is not really forgotten: rather, its memory has been hermetically sealed in the capsule of a safe and comforting narrative. The Korean War (according to this narrative) was an explosion of violence from which Japan remained almost entirely insulated – a bystander fortuitously reaping the benefits of war procurements. The war accelerated the reverse course in the allied occupation policy towards Japan, favourably influenced the terms of the peace settlement with Japan’s former Pacific War enemies, and (above all) set the nation on the path to high growth.

In Japanese history education and public memory, this image of the Korean War as (to quote Prime Minister Yoshida) a ‘gift from the gods’ remains dominant to the present day. But a growing body of research, both within Japan and internationally, questions this image by revealing evidence of a deeper and more violent dimension of Japan’s involvement in the war. The paper will contribute that research by exploring the stories of Japanese who served in the war zone, both on the South Korean/United Nations side and on the North Korean/Chinese side. Among the former were around 1,200 former naval officers engaged in minesweeping missions; several thousand workers recruited as sailors, ship’s pilots, dock labourers etc. and sent to play supporting roles in UN operations in Korea (including manning the landing vessels for the Incheon Landing); several hundred Japanese Red Cross nurses who tended the wounded at the war front; and some 120 Japanese base workers who accompanied US forces from their bases when they were deployed to Korea. On the Northern side, it is estimated that some 100-200 Japanese who had been “left behind” in Manchuria at the end of the Pacific War joined the Chinese People’s Volunteer Force at the Korean War front, while other Japanese doctors, nurses and support personnel also worked behind the lines in China during the war.

These stories raise interesting questions about the processes of historical remembering and forgetting. Why has the Japanese presence in the battle zone been so comprehensively written out of history? How might a recovery of the history of the Japanese combatants influence our wider perceptions of the history both of Japan and Korea in the 1950s? My paper argues that a rediscovery of the story of the Japanese combatants helps us to re-consider conventional images of the “Cold War order”. Drawing on the recent work of Kwon Heonik and others, I argue the need to “re-remember” the so-called “Cold War” from an East Asian perspective. Such re-remembering involves a recognition that, in the East Asian context (and even for Japan) the Cold War was embedded in hot war. A focus on the Japanese combatants also enables us to rethink conventional geographical images of the “Cold War” as a confrontation between vast chunks of territory colour coded by ideology: the ‘communist bloc’ and the ‘non-communist bloc’. In the story of Japan’s Korean War combatants, we see glimpses of another fluid and ubiquitous “Cold War” which crossed spatial borders, while mobile human beings in turn traversed its dividing lines, sometimes out of intellectual conviction, at other times driven by the simple demands of survival.

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