Zachary Keck

China’s Changing Position on Japan’s History

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Zachary Keck

China’s Changing Position on Japan’s History

In recent years, China has significantly hardened its stance on Japan acknowledging its imperial past. Why?

As Shannon notes over at China Power, July 7 marks the 77th anniversary since the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Not surprisingly, China and President Xi Jinping are marking the occasion in high fashion.

Normally, the Pacific Realist prefers to steer clear of the history debates plaguing the Asia-Pacific. As an American, I naturally have an aversion to history. Still, I more than understand Korea and China’s anger about Imperial Japan’s unspeakable aggression. And, while I also understand Japan’s growing annoyance at the fact that repeated apologies have earned it little acceptance by its neighbors, I think the Abe administration would do well to stop drudging up distant history.

Nonetheless, it is indisputable (if often unspoken) that China in particular has changed its position on Japan’s history over time. Nowhere is this more evident than on the issue of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. In the past, Japanese leaders visited the Yasukuni Shrine frequently. Emperor Hirohito decided to stop visiting the shrine in 1978 after class-A war criminals were enshrined at the site. Since then, no Japanese emperor has visited the shrine.

Nonetheless, Japanese prime ministers continued to visit the shrine regularly until 1985. It was in that year — the 40th anniversary of the end of the war — that Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone sparked a firestorm of criticism not because he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, but because he had done so in his official capacity. Specifically, he signed the visitor book at the shrine “Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone,” instead of “a man named Yasuhiro Nakasone who is prime minister,” which he had done in previous visits. He also brought flowers to the shrine that had been purchased with state funds.

This set off a ton of criticism — from both foreign and domestic critics (many of whom were concerned that the visit breached the separation of state and religion clause of Japan’s constitution) — but only compared to the countless prior visits by premiers who had done so at private citizens. Indeed, China’s response at the time was simply to say: “an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates a number of Japanese war criminals, would hurt the feelings of both the Chinese and Japanese peoples who suffered at the hands of the militarists.”

The criticism was enough for Nakasone and his successors to stop visiting the site annually and biannually. Still, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa visited quietly in 1992, and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto did so too as a private citizen. Junichiro Koizumi resumed regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine during his tenure as prime minister starting in 2001. He would visit the shrine six times during his time in office.

China and South Korean anger over the visits notably increased during this period. Furthermore, Japan’s relationship deteriorated with China during Koizumi’s tenure, partly because of these visits. Still, they were far and away better than current Sino-Japanese ties. Indeed, as prime minister, Koizumi met with Chinese Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as well as Premiers Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao. In April 2002, he was even invited to deliver a keynote speech at the Boao Forum. This stands in stark contrast to today when China has refused to meet officials at nearly every level, allegedly because of Shinzo Abe’s decision to visit the shrine in December of last year.

The question then arises: why has China’s position hardened so much on Japanese history in general, and visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in particular? The most charitable answer for the Chinese government would be that public opinion has become more important in China, and thus Beijing is simply forced to heed the will of the Chinese people. This notion probably has a degree of truth to it, but clearly the Chinese government has bent over backwards stoking and sustaining lingering public anger. Thus, public sentiment alone is incapable of explaining the change.

Another related but more plausible explanation is that China’s shifting position on Japanese history reflects the Chinese Communist Party’s changing sources of legitimacy. Specifically, as Marxism has faded as an ideology for the Party, Chinese nationalism has become the main candidate to replace it. The CCP has thus increasingly tied its legitimacy to the notion that it is responsible for ending China’s century of humiliation. Japan’s brutal war against China is intimately tied to that humiliation. Moreover, constantly reminding the Chinese people of Tokyo’s horrendous crimes indirectly reinforces the (largely false) notion that the CCP was the group that expelled Japan from the country and restored China’s dignity.

There is undoubtedly a large degree of truth in that rationale. However, there is also an international dynamic to China’s hardening position on Japan’s supposed historical revisionism. Namely, as China’s power has grown it has increasingly sought to alter the regional status quo. That is obviously deeply unsettling to most Asian nations, who have benefited from the status quo China is seeking to alter in ways its neighbors can’t foresee or control.

Crafting a narrative of a militaristic revival in Japan is a clever way for China to distract the region from its actual efforts to alter the status quo. It also helps to undercut Japan’s very vocal warnings about Beijing’s efforts to change the status quo.

Most importantly, China’s growing power and revisionist aims have made it imperative that Japan take steps to hedge against it. The controversial defense and security moves that the Abe administration has undertaken are of course a direct response to China’s growing might and ambitions. However, by fomenting fears of a militaristic Japan, Beijing complicates Tokyo’s efforts to help the region balance against a rising China. Japan has to tread softly less it spark undue fears that it is becoming an imperial power bent on regional domination again.

Thus, by hardening its stance on Japan’s history, Beijing is hoping to get the region to fixate on the past as it carves out its future.