Senior, International Relations
University of Toronto
2017 Asia Study Tour Participant
For two weeks in July, I was immersed in a unique learning experience focusing on Asia’s WWII history. As a frequent visitor to China, it was not my first time in most of the cities on this tour. Returning to these cities with a new purpose in mind, however, created a completely new experience. I went to sites that I never knew existed before, discovered corners of the city that had special historical significance, and met with many inspiring individuals in these places. Putting aside the modern, prosperous and metropolitan features of these cities, we spent our time delving into these cities’ painful past. Throughout this trip, we visited many museums, memorials, historical sites and discussed history with academics, lawyers, professors, museum curators, community leaders, activists and so on. The trip’s focus on artifacts of history, however, was both its most meaningful value but also a point that needs critical reflection.
The average age of participants on this trip was high – I am 22 years old and I am the youngest on this trip. The number of young people we saw on this trip (with the exception of the Wednesday protests in Seoul) and our interactions with young adults and students on this trip was, frankly speaking, very limited. Thinking about what comes ahead, our ultimate goal is not to have the older generation remember their own history, but to have this memory passed down to the current and future generations. There are some reasons to be optimistic as we were told at the Nanjing Massacre Museum that half of the eight million visitors last year were under 30 years old, and that one of their goals is to make sure that young people do not forget this history of invasion, resistance, massacre, and those who stayed to help. This is the approach that we need going forward. It is much more meaningful to have young people – who otherwise may have nothing to do with this history – engage in conversation about the implications of this history, and ask critical questions about how this past has shaped and will continue to shape the present and how it affects each and every one of us in this world right now and in the future. What we need is a shift in focus to our approach to WWII history in Asia: from remembering history for the sake of history, to focusing on the modern and global implications of this history. While I fully respect the fact that history should be respected and remembered in and of itself, I am also worried that history without a focus on its implications for the present and future will inevitably lose its intrinsic value and relevance.
As Don said in one of our reflection sessions, the “Comfort Women” movement in San Francisco is so successful because they broadened their coalition. The movement to set a Nanjing Massacre Commemoration Day in Ontario is also something we can learn from: Asia’s WWII history was embedded within a broader discussion of crimes against humanity and the values upheld by a multicultural and peace-oriented society like Ontario and Canada. In the broader movement to preserve Asia’s WWII history, we should broaden our scope and our definition of “history” beyond a narrow focus on the past. History in and of itself is important in its own rights, but the key task of our generation and the next is to study the modern implications of this history – that is to say, not only what happened 80 years ago, but how this matters to modern issues like the rise of China, the China-US confrontation, Japan’s attitude towards history, the China-Japan relationship, and ultimately, global peace and stability. This trip has done the critical job of creating the space, time and opportunity to learn about the past and to begin reflecting on its implications. I am so grateful to Don and New Jersey ALPHA for creating this opportunity and for laying this critical foundation. Now, it is time to build on this foundation and place history in the context of the present and the future.