Japan, China, and the Strains of Historical Memory

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Japan, China, and the Strains of Historical Memory

80 years after the Nanjing Massacre, historical issues continue to haunt China-Japan relations.

Japan, China, and the Strains of Historical Memory

Anti-Japan protesters burn Japanese military flags near Japan’s consulate in Hong Kong on Dec. 13, 2017 as they mourn the victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese forces in 1937.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

“The victorious army must have its rewards – and those rewards are to plunder, murder, rape at will, to commit acts of unbelievable brutality and savagery. . . In all modern history surely there is no page that will stand so black as that of the rape of Nanking.” 

So wrote the American missionary George Ashmore Fitch 80 years ago in the city of Nanjing, China, where he bore witness to one of the worst massacres in modern history. For a period of six weeks beginning in December 1937, Japanese soldiers raped and killed thousands of civilians in an orgy of violence that has come to symbolize the worst excesses of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The solemn memorial ceremony held in Nanjing on December 13, 2017, demonstrated that the echoes of that painful time still reverberate in this ancient city, and indeed throughout East Asia. The war remains a highly sensitive subject between Japan and its neighbors, and is a constant irritant in the complicated Sino-Japanese relationship. The massacre is widely remembered in China as a symbol of the nation’s shared suffering, and its memorialization is a significant pillar of Chinese national identity. Japanese citizens, by contrast, are divided on the extent to which they should atone for the sins of the past.

In light of the war’s continued relevance, and in the interest of regional peace, the peoples of this tense region have little choice but to find common ground in acknowledging the past, respecting the victims, and taking bold steps forward.

Competing Narratives

Memories of World War II continue to haunt East Asia, where competing historical narratives undergird the region’s national identities. As China has grown into an economic and military power, historical memory has played a more significant role in its public education and state-building. Its proud people are intent on overcoming the “unequal treaties” forced upon China during the “century of humiliation” between the first Opium War and  World War II.  As the scholar Zheng Wang has pointed out, the Chinese education system implores that its people “never forget national humiliation” at the hands of Japanese invaders and Western imperialists.

For many, the Nanjing Massacre represents far more than what happened in this one city; it stands for the massive scale of human suffering in a war that claimed between 10 and 20 million Chinese lives. Whereas Beijing downplayed the war in the Mao Zedong era, in recent years the state has done more to formalize its commemoration. In 2014, the National People’s Congress established three new national holidays: Victory over Japan Day (September 3), Memorial Day (September 30), and the National Day of Remembrance for the Nanjing Massacre (December 13). The Chinese government has also changed the war’s origin point from the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident to the 1931 Mukden Incident.  Consequently, a new official name — the “Fourteen Years’ War of Resistance” — has replaced the traditional “Anti-Japanese War of Resistance.”

Sino-Japanese War museums and memorials dot the landscape of eastern and southern China. This year, the nation marked the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre with a nationally televised ceremony at the city’s huge memorial museum, which sits only a few miles from a new museum commemorating wartime sex slavery and another that honors fallen fighter pilots. China’s culture industry, too, has played a part in shaping public memory. Several Chinese television series are set during the war, including such popular programs as Sparrow, Rouge, and the critically acclaimed Battle of Changsha. A new documentary about China’s surviving comfort women has become the nation’s highest-grossing documentary.

Such depictions and memorializations are a highly sensitive subject in Japan. As the scholar Takashi Yoshida has shown, the people of Japan have carried out a robust public debate about the war, the massacre, and their soldiers’ culpability, one which now extends to the never-ending debate over remilitarization. Progressive historians in Japan have endorsed the harsh judgments of the postwar military tribunals (the Tokyo Trials), which laid bare soldiers’ wartime atrocities throughout East Asia. Many Japanese citizens acknowledge their nation’s wartime aggression and seek sincere official apologies from their leaders.

Others in Japan contend that the country has done enough. Revisionists question the scale of the Nanjing Massacre, and a few extreme nationalists even deny it altogether. These critics have their own narrative of wartime victimization, in which Japan fought the war to fend off Western imperialism only to be met with the destruction of its cities, twin atomic bombings, tribunals that amounted to “victors’ justice,” and a humiliating postwar occupation. If a Japanese official apologizes for the nation’s wartime actions — as some have done — Japanese nationalists invariably double down on their denials.  (When former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio visited the Nanjing memorial museum in 2013, the sitting defense minister called him a “traitor.”)

This revisionist perspective has seeped into the mainstream of Japanese social and political life. The nation’s history textbooks have been widely criticized since the 1980s for downplaying Japanese soldiers’ actions. Last year, Japan withheld UNESCO funding because the organization listed Nanjing Massacre documents in its Memory of the World Register. More recently, the unveiling of a comfort women statue in San Francisco sparked a protest from the mayor of Osaka. Among mainstream historians, there is no doubt that Japanese soldiers committed atrocities against thousands of civilians in Nanjing and elsewhere, yet scholarly disagreements have spawned an unfortunate numbers game in which the question “How many victims?” obscures the simple truth that a large number of soldiers carried out reprehensible acts.

Japanese revisionism is a significant source of anger in China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has borne the brunt of recent criticism for, among other things, his downplaying of war crimes, his questioning of the comfort women narrative, and his affiliation with the conservative textbook reform movement. Observers throughout the region pilloried Abe for his 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto war memorial which lists around 1,000 convicted war criminals among its 2.5 million honorees. To many in China, Abe represents the legitimization of the nationalist perspective. “Japan slaughtered my 300,000 compatriots,” one blogger recently wrote on the popular Chinese platform Weibo, “[and] Abe tried to deny the historical facts.”

Even some Japanese apologies have been tainted by a dose of semantic insincerity, especially on the issue of comfort women, which has hindered Japan-South Korea relations for years. As David Tolbert of the International Center for Transitional Justice has suggested, Japan’s 2017 apology and $8 million reparations payment to surviving South Korean comfort women seemed like more of a quid pro quo political arrangement than a sincere statement of regret.

Polling data appears to confirm what the anecdotal evidence suggests — that the people of China and Japan hold overwhelmingly negative opinions of each other. In recent Pew surveys, 81 percent of Chinese respondents expressed an unfavorable view of Japan, and 77 percent said Japan had not sufficiently apologized for its wartime actions. Likewise, 83 percent of Japanese respondents declared an overall unfavorable view of China, and 89 percent saw China’s increasing power as a threat to Japan (64 percent said “major threat.”)  Strong majorities in both countries view the other as “arrogant” and “violent.”

These harsh judgments have grown from many real and imagined differences and slights, but the war remains among the most significant sources of bilateral friction. In a 2016 Genron poll, over 60 percent of Chinese respondents cited “Japan’s lack of proper apology and remorse” for the war as a reason for their negative view of Japan, while nearly 50 percent of Japanese respondents cited “criticism of Japan over historical issues” as a reason for their negative view of China.

Security Implications

Thus do nationalism and the ghosts of the past add a substantial emotional element to maritime and security disagreements in this heavily militarized region. China, Japan, and South Korea now spend more on defense than ever. Beijing is reforming its military and strengthening its force projection capabilities, while Tokyo and Seoul are responding to China’s rise, the North Korean threat, and a potential American retreat from the region.

Sino-Japanese relations have been on particularly thin ice since 2012, when Japan purchased three of the Senkaku Islands from their private owner. These small, uninhabited islands, which are claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan, are situated near potentially lucrative seabed fossil fuels and fishing grounds, as evidenced by their Chinese name, Diaoyu (literally “fishing”). Sino-Japanese tension over the Senkakus is so strong that more than 60 percent of Chinese respondents in the Genron poll predicted a future military conflict over the territory.

Although the negatives are formidable, there are signs of a modest improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. Since Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the July G20 summit and the November APEC gathering, he has expressed more interest in cooperating with China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road trade and investment initiative. The potential for bilateral breakthroughs is slim, due not only to the aforementioned territorial and historical disagreements, but also because of the two nations’ fundamentally different strategic goals. Yet observers have detected a minor thaw. Xi attended the December 13 memorial service in Nanjing, but he did not speak or lay wreaths — a sign, according to some, that he did not want to appear overly confrontational toward Japan.

The risk of conflict is always high in this region. As the former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans wrote in 2015, “If World War III ever breaks out, its origins will not lie in the Middle East, South Asia or Eastern Europe. It is in East Asia — where the strategic interests of China, the United States, and their respective partners intersect — that the geopolitical stakes, diplomatic tensions, and potential for a global explosion are highest.”

On the bright side, large majorities in China and Japan are concerned about deteriorating relations, and they agree that the two governments should cooperate to resolve regional disputes. The two nations have many common interests, not least of which are a desire for regional stability and the continuation of $250 billion in annual trade. To maintain the long peace that has benefited the entire region, Japan, China, and the other nations of East Asia must strike a difficult balance between acknowledging the past, respecting the victims’ memory, and forging a new path forward.

Dr. Joe Renouard teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Nanjing, China.