Volunteer – Toronto Education
2017 Asia Study Tour Participant
In July of 2017 I was lucky enough to experience the 2017 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour. Over two weeks, we journeyed through six cities in China and Seoul, South Korea. The trip was packed full of amazing experiences, and it left a deep impression on me. The theme of the trip was peace and reconciliation. Throughout our time in East Asia, we had the opportunity to meet some incredible people doing important work in the history of World War II in Asia. We met curators, directors, academics, lawyers, and more who have dedicated years of their lives to researching the war and fighting for justice. We also had the opportunity to talk with numerous survivors of the war, and were honoured to hear their stories.
There were numerous concepts I struggled with during the trip. There were marked differences between how different events, even within the same war, were memorialized. It was a constant wrestling match between being grateful that, especially in China, the government used such a vast array of resources to ensure younger generations do not forget their history, and the reality that this history is still being lived by the survivors and their families. It was interesting to experience both the grandeur of some of the museums we visited, as well as the deep trauma, shame and poverty of most of the survivors we spoke to. Building a nation’s collective memory is crucial to the future, and resources must be spent to ensure they remain in the minds and classrooms of each new generation of citizens. Museums are incredible at making history “real” to their visitors. But we must also ensure that the survivors are not merely committed to “history”, as if their pain is not very much a part of the present, and as if we are not also fighting sexual slavery today, slave labour today, and chemical warfare today. As if the communities impacted by World War II in Asia do not still carry with them the trauma, generations old, even as the number of survivors dwindle. How do we ensure the continued support of the living and their families, as we memorialize the dead and talk about this history in the past tense? How do we ensure we respect the specificities of these tragedies, and understand the particular injustices survivors of WWII in Asia face, while making connections to other atrocities around the world and global themes? These questions I am still wrestling with today, but I am grateful for the opportunity to have asked them of myself on this trip.
The moment that left the greatest impression on me was standing at the Wednesday Demonstration in Seoul. Just days earlier, Kim Gun-ja had passed away. The mood at the places we visited in Seoul was noticeably sombre, at the House of Sharing and at the War and Women’s Rights Museum. However on Wednesday, our last day of the trip, I found myself incredibly inspired by the scenes I saw. Young people were out in huge numbers, ranging from elementary school students to university students. One of the most important lessons that stuck with me throughout the trip and will remain with me forever is the thought that was articulated numerous times to us, especially in Korea, that a country has no future if it forgets its past. It came to a head on that final day, and seeing the throngs of young people passionate about this cause I was moved to tears numerous times. From the organizers, dedicating so much time to ensuring this history is never forgotten, to the women of the House of Sharing, confronting Japanese revisionist history bravely over and over again for decades, to the elementary school students chanting passionately for justice for events that happened seventy years before they were born. It was incredibly impactful.
We have a responsibility to pursue our own education on these topics, and we have a responsibility to ensure the tragedies of World War II in Asia do not go forgotten in the West. Not only because of the complicated geopolitical situation in East Asia, with numerous issues stemming from the second World War and profoundly shaping the situation in the region today, but more so because the act of memorializing history, especially during a time in which we fight against forces trying to cover it up and obscure the truth, is a revolutionary act. Acknowledging the atrocities of the past is vital to ensuring they never happen again. It is no coincidence that a major battleground in the Japanese government’s fight to control and obscure how the world remembers the war is fought in classrooms, with textbooks as the primary weapon. The value of educating youth on the truth of past atrocities cannot be overstated. The engagement and passion of the people I met on the 2017 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study tour will stay with me, and continue to inform how I approach this history. We must remember, as it is the first step to action, and the more people are educated on this history and remember the victims, support the survivors, and condemn war and aggression in all its forms, the greater chance we have of achieving a true, just peace.