History Education: The Source of Conflict Between China and Japan


While people often discuss historical problems in the bilateral relationship between China and Japan, they normally only see history as a background issue for the current tension and thus refrain from taking any actions. Most people also believe that it would take a long time to see any result from changes to the historical narrative and history education. Therefore, according to this view, it is impractical to address these issues as a part of the solution. I believe this is an important reason why tensions and hostility between the two Asian neighbors have lasted so long. Without addressing the underlying roots of hostility, the two nations will be unable to build a normal relationship.

As a unique phenomenon of this conflict, the general public of the two countries have large perception gaps on many issues. The same event has often been interpreted differently by each side. China and Japan both view themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor. Each party sees itself as peaceful while the other state is aggressive and revisionist. On each side, there are also conspiracy theories with regard to each other’s intentions. I believe the divergent perceptions between the two neighbors can be explained as a clash of histories—people of the two countries have quite different attitudes and approaches towards history. One important reason for Chinese emotionality in the relationship with Japan is that many people connect the current issues with historical grievances. The events of today reactivate the Chinese memory of the wars and invasions the country suffered many years ago. However, in Japan, many Japanese believe that the past wars belong to the ancestors of both countries and that current people have no control over the historical issue. So the Japanese naturally do not connect the current issues with history.

On a deeper level, the different senses of history between the two sides are in fact the products of two very different approaches to and systems of history education. In the Chinese classroom, for example, the curriculum is heavily loaded with the contents of China’s traumatic national experience from the First Opium War (1839–1842) through the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945. A state-run  patriotic education is conducted from kindergarten through college. In many Chinese cities, there are numerous museums, monuments, and historical sites that were established in memory of this period. All these sources of memory have made forgetting impossible.

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Without understanding this background, we cannot understand why, nearly 70 years after the end of the conflict, the ghosts of war still haunt Sino–Japanese relations. For the current generation who received an education in China, the war between China and Japan has never ended. From history textbooks, public media, and popular culture, the “memory” of a war they never experienced is very fresh. Their attitude towards Japan can be easily “reactivated” by Japan’s current “aggressive” behavior, such as the act of nationalizing some of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine.

However, in Japan, history education contains very little information on World War II, so the younger generations do not know much about that part of history if they do not proactively seek more information themselves. Compared with the Chinese youth who received a top-down “patriotic education,” there are probably “generations of no history education” in Japan.

For example, one of the most debated historical issues between China and Japan is the Nanjing Massacre. In China, the official middle school history textbook uses many photos, statistics tables, eyewitness accounts, and personal anecdotes to recount this incident. It provides very detailed accounts of how people were executed on a massive scale at various execution sites and how their bodies were disposed of by the Japanese military. Numerous films, novels, historical books, and newspaper articles about the “Rape of Nanjing” have been produced in China, especially in the 1990s after the patriotic education campaign began.

However, if you have a copy of the 2005 version of a junior high school textbook titled New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyōkasho), published by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, you will find that there is no mention of the “Nanjing Massacre” or the “Nanjing Incident.” Indeed, there is only one sentence that refers to this event: “they [the Japanese troops] occupied that city in December.” According to research by Japanese scholar Takashi Yoshida, only two of the seven middle school textbooks used in Japan in 2002 gave numbers for the controversial death toll of the Nanjing Massacre, while others used more ambiguous terms, such as “many” and “massive” to describe the casualties. In 2005, the Japanese Education Ministry’s approval of this version of the New History Textbook actually ignited immediate outrage and large scale demonstrations in several Asian countries, especially China and South Korea. When the same historical event receives such different treatment in the textbooks of the two countries, it is not difficult to understand why the contents of history textbooks could trigger massive protests.

Although textbooks masquerade as a neutral and legitimate source of information, political leaders as well as elites often have a vested interest in retaining simplistic narratives. However, when history textbooks are compiled based on the assumption that they should be about one’s ancestors, they are often imbued with ethnocentric views, stereotypes, and prejudices, making it difficult to avoid the glorification or demonization of particular groups. For the people of China and Japan, the brutal war and this part of history have left many sensitive historical symbols between the two countries. These symbols can be “reactivated” deliberately or unintentionally, and can cause major tensions or even conflict between the two countries.  This has been the fundamental reason why the bilateral relationship has always been fragile and dangerous. Indeed, historical issues and interpretations of the past have been the major barriers to a real reconciliation between the two neighbors.

I believe that future reconciliation between the two countries will largely depend on whether their citizens, especially the policymakers and educators, can realize that history education is not just one of the normal subjects at school. Rather, it plays an important role in constructing a nation’s identity and perceptions. Without addressing this deep source of conflict and tough obstacle to reconciliation, it will be impossible for China and Japan to find a path to sustainable coexistence. At the same time, if textbooks and other narratives of history can become a source of conflict, then the reform of history education and the revision of textbooks should also be able to contribute to reconciliation and conflict resolution.

Zheng Wang is an Associate Professor of Seton Hall University and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is the author of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, which is the winner of the International Studies Association’s Yale H. Ferguson Award.

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