How History Can Save China-Japan Relations

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How History Can Save China-Japan Relations

Leaders across Asia should use the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII to build a more peaceful future.

Unsettled war memories are once again stirring up tension in Northeast Asia. According to a recent report, Beijing would like to make World War II reconciliation a centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s visit to Germany next month. According to the article, diplomatic sources say that the Chinese government wants to highlight German contrition over its wartime past to shame Japan for what it considers to be insufficient postwar atonement.  This report comes just after Tokyo was forced to distance itself from World War II-related comments made by individuals at public broadcaster NHK. Can any good come of engaging sensitive war memories? Yes, according to a recent proposal put forth by scholars from several countries.

In a new column in the Asahi Shimbun, University of Tokyo Professor Kiichi Fujiwara details an innovative plan to help states begin to move towards historical reconciliation. The proposal, which originated at a conference I participated in at the University of Tokyo earlier this month, urges that Japan and China use the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II to acknowledge the wartime atrocities that continue to inform these states’ national narratives so many decades later. The proposal is an important one, and should be seriously considered by officials throughout the region and in the United States. One particular feature of the plan—reciprocity — distinguishes it from other efforts to mend historical fences, and may make this proposal domestically viable for the participants involved.

As Professor Fujiwara details, the historical reconciliation plan looks ahead to 2015, and the anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It proposes that Japanese and Chinese leaders conduct official and reciprocal visits to sites that are associated with major wartime atrocities. Japanese leaders would visit Nanjing, the site of the brutal 1937 siege.  This visit would be of particular significance in acknowledging wartime memories, as the atrocities at Nanjing are denied by some ultranationalists in Japan (including the recent NHK commentators). The Yasukuni Shrine war museum’s sterilized treatment of this incident is one of the reasons that Japanese leaders’ visits to the shrine enflame regional tensions.

Chinese leaders, for their part, would visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki to pay respects for the massive loss of Japanese civilian life in 1945. This visit would serve to acknowledge that Japan did not exclusively play the role of wartime aggressor—its people were also victims of the horrors of conflict. Leaders would not be expected to issue official apologies during these visits—simply to travel to the other country’s sensitive site and recognize the role that this plays in national memory.

These reciprocal visits could extend beyond the Sino-Japanese relationship. Scholars have also suggested that Washington and Tokyo might undertake similar sojourns. Prime Minister Abe could visit Pearl Harbor, and pay his respects to American war dead.  President Obama, for his part, could travel to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the only places where nuclear weapons were ever detonated in anger.  Beyond the important role of historical remembrance, Obama’s visit to one of these sites could present an occasion for the president to reinvigorate his agenda on nuclear reductions. The U.S. and Japan have largely overcome war-related tensions and are now close allies, but this exchange would demonstrate that respect for history can be useful and productive, even among friends.

One of the reasons that issues of war memory often seem so difficult to surmount is that they inherently activate national narratives and public sentiment about as much as any set of issues can. We often call on leaders to issue apologies for the atrocities of yore, or to simply put the past behind them for the sake of policy expediency, but the domestic salience of these memories may leave even the most pragmatic leaders with little room to maneuver.

As a participant in the workshop in which it was crafted, this proposal was especially compelling for one particular reason: the fact that the visits would be reciprocal, and involve mutual acknowledgement of national loss. Chinese and Japanese scholars at the workshop seemed to agree that reciprocal visits to these important sites would allow their respective governments to feel they had received an important historical acknowledgment, and not just made a concession to mollify the other state’s longstanding grievances. Coupled with the imperative to simply pay respects, rather than issue formal apologies, this reciprocity could make the visits domestically viable, and be a useful first step in a broader reconciliation.

In recent months, it has seemed that the anniversaries of major conflicts have mostly been used to portend wars. The University of Tokyo proposal is unique in its aspiration to use memory to mitigate longstanding tension.  Let’s hope that by 2015, the relevant leaders are ready to acknowledge past conflict in the interest of a more stable and peaceful future.