Japan, China, and the Strains of Historical Memory
80 years after the Nanjing Massacre,historical issues continue to haunt China-Japan relations.
Anti-Japan protesters burn Japanesemilitary flags near Japan’s consulate in Hong Kong on Dec. 13, 2017 as theymourn the victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese forces in 1937. mage Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung
“The victorious army must have its rewards – and those rewards are toplunder, murder, rape at will, to commit acts of unbelievable brutality andsavagery. . . In all modern history surely there is no page that will stand soblack as that of the rape of Nanking.”
So wrote the American missionary GeorgeAshmore Fitch 80 years ago in the city of Nanjing, China, where he bore witnessto one of the worst massacres in modern history. For a period of six weeksbeginning in December 1937, Japanese soldiers raped and killed thousands ofcivilians in an orgy of violence that has come to symbolize the worst excessesof the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The solemn memorial ceremony held inNanjing on December 13, 2017, demonstrated that the echoes of that painful timestill reverberate in this ancient city, and indeed throughout East Asia. Thewar remains a highly sensitive subject between Japan and its neighbors, and isa constant irritant in the complicated Sino-Japanese relationship. The massacreis widely remembered in China as a symbol of the nation’s shared suffering, andits memorialization is a significant pillar of Chinese national identity.Japanese citizens, by contrast, are divided on the extent to which they shouldatone for the sins of the past.
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In light of the war’s continued relevance,and in the interest of regional peace, the peoples of this tense region havelittle choice but to find common ground in acknowledging the past, respectingthe victims, and taking bold steps forward.
Memories of World War II continue to hauntEast Asia, where competing historical narratives undergird the region’snational identities. As China has grown into an economic and military power,historical memory has played a more significant role in its public educationand state-building. Its proud people are intent on overcoming the “unequaltreaties” forced upon China during the “century of humiliation” between thefirst Opium War and World War II. As the scholar ZhengWang has pointed out, the Chinese education systemimplores that its people “never forget national humiliation” at the hands ofJapanese invaders and Western imperialists.
For many, the Nanjing Massacre representsfar more than what happened in this one city; it stands for the massive scaleof human suffering in a war that claimed between 10 and 20 million Chineselives. Whereas Beijing downplayed the war in the Mao Zedong era, in recentyears the state has done more to formalize its commemoration. In 2014, theNational People’s Congress established three new national holidays: Victoryover Japan Day (September 3), Memorial Day (September 30), and the National Dayof Remembrance for the Nanjing Massacre (December 13). The Chinese governmenthas also changed the war’s origin point from the 1937 Marco Polo BridgeIncident to the 1931 Mukden Incident. Consequently, a new official name — the “Fourteen Years’ War ofResistance” — has replaced the traditional “Anti-Japanese War of Resistance.”
Sino-Japanese War museums and memorials dotthe landscape of eastern and southern China. This year, the nation marked the80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre with a nationally televised ceremonyat the city’s huge memorial museum, which sits only a few miles from a newmuseum commemorating wartime sex slavery and another that honors fallen fighterpilots. China’s culture industry, too, has played a part in shaping publicmemory. Several Chinese television series are set during the war, includingsuch popular programs as Sparrow, Rouge, and the critically acclaimed Battle ofChangsha. A new documentary about China’s surviving comfort women has becomethe nation’s highest-grossing documentary.
Such depictions and memorializations are ahighly 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, themassacre, and their soldiers’ culpability, one which now extends to thenever-ending debate over remilitarization. Progressive historians in Japan haveendorsed the harsh judgments of the postwar military tribunals (the TokyoTrials), which laid bare soldiers’ wartime atrocities throughout East Asia.Many Japanese citizens acknowledge their nation’s wartime aggression and seeksincere official apologies from their leaders.
Others in Japan contend that the countryhas done enough. Revisionists question the scale of the Nanjing Massacre, and afew extreme nationalists even deny it altogether. These critics have their ownnarrative of wartime victimization, in which Japan fought the war to fend offWestern imperialism only to be met with the destruction of its cities, twinatomic bombings, tribunals that amounted to “victors’ justice,” and ahumiliating postwar occupation. If a Japanese official apologizes for thenation’s wartime actions — as some have done — Japanese nationalists invariablydouble down on their denials. (Whenformer Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio visited the Nanjing memorial museum in2013, the sitting defense minister called him a “traitor.”)
This revisionist perspective has seepedinto the mainstream of Japanese social and political life. The nation’s historytextbooks have been widely criticized since the 1980s for downplaying Japanesesoldiers’ actions. Last year, Japan withheld UNESCO funding because the organizationlisted Nanjing Massacre documents in its Memory of the World Register. Morerecently, the unveiling of a comfort women statue in San Francisco sparked aprotest from the mayor of Osaka. Among mainstream historians, there is no doubtthat Japanese soldiers committed atrocities against thousands of civilians inNanjing and elsewhere, yet scholarly disagreements have spawned an unfortunatenumbers game in which the question “How many victims?” obscures the simpletruth that a large number of soldiers carried out reprehensible acts.
Japanese revisionism is a significantsource of anger in China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has borne the brunt ofrecent criticism for, among other things, his downplaying of war crimes, hisquestioning of the comfort women narrative, and his affiliation with theconservative textbook reform movement. Observers throughout the regionpilloried Abe for his 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, aShinto war memorial which lists around 1,000 convicted war criminals among its2.5 million honorees. To many in China, Abe represents the legitimizationof the nationalist perspective. “Japan slaughtered my 300,000 compatriots,” oneblogger recently wrote on the popular Chinese platform Weibo, “[and] Abe triedto deny the historical facts.”
Even some Japanese apologies have beentainted by a dose of semantic insincerity, especially on the issue of comfortwomen, which has hindered Japan-South Korea relations for years. As DavidTolbert of the International Center forTransitional Justice has suggested, Japan’s 2017apology and $8 million reparations payment to surviving South Korean comfortwomen seemed like more of a quid pro quo political arrangement than a sincerestatement of regret.
Polling data appears to confirm what theanecdotal evidence suggests — that the people of China and Japan holdoverwhelmingly negative opinions of each other. In recent Pew surveys, 81percent of Chinese respondents expressed an unfavorable view of Japan, and 77percent said Japan had not sufficiently apologized for its wartime actions.Likewise, 83 percent of Japanese respondents declared an overall unfavorableview of China, and 89 percent saw China’s increasing power as a threat to Japan(64 percent said “major threat.”) Strongmajorities in both countries view the other as “arrogant” and “violent.”
These harsh judgments have grown from manyreal and imagined differences and slights, but the war remains among the mostsignificant sources of bilateral friction. In a 2016 Genron poll, over 60 percentof Chinese respondents cited “Japan’s lack of proper apology and remorse” for thewar as a reason for their negative view of Japan, while nearly 50 percent ofJapanese respondents cited “criticism of Japan over historical issues” as areason for their negative view of China.
Thus do nationalism and the ghosts of thepast add a substantial emotional element to maritime and security disagreementsin this heavily militarized region. China, Japan, and South Korea now spendmore on defense than ever. Beijing is reforming its military and strengtheningits force projection capabilities, while Tokyo and Seoul are responding toChina’s rise, the North Korean threat, and a potential American retreat fromthe region.
Sino-Japanese relations have been onparticularly thin ice since 2012, when Japan purchased three of the SenkakuIslands from their private owner. These small, uninhabited islands, which areclaimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan, are situated near potentially lucrativeseabed fossil fuels and fishing grounds, as evidenced by their Chinese name,Diaoyu (literally “fishing”). Sino-Japanese tension over the Senkakus is sostrong that more than 60 percent of Chinese respondents in the Genron pollpredicted a future military conflict over the territory.
Although the negatives are formidable,there are signs of a modest improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. Since Abemet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the July G20 summit and the NovemberAPEC gathering, he has expressed more interest in cooperating with China’sambitious One Belt, One Road trade and investment initiative. The potential forbilateral breakthroughs is slim, due not only to the aforementioned territorialand historical disagreements, but also because of the two nations’fundamentally different strategic goals. Yet observers have detected a minorthaw. Xi attended the December 13 memorial service in Nanjing, but he did notspeak or lay wreaths — a sign, according to some, that he did not want toappear overly confrontational toward Japan.
The risk of conflict is always high in thisregion. 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 strategicinterests of China, the United States, and their respective partners intersect— that the geopolitical stakes, diplomatic tensions, and potential for a globalexplosion are highest.”
On the bright side, large majorities inChina and Japan are concerned about deteriorating relations, and they agreethat the two governments should cooperate to resolve regional disputes. The twonations have many common interests, not least of which are a desire forregional stability and the continuation of $250 billion in annual trade. Tomaintain the long peace that has benefited the entire region, Japan, China, andthe other nations of East Asia must strike a difficult balance betweenacknowledging the past, respecting the victims’ memory, and forging a new pathforward.
Dr. Joe Renouard teaches at the Johns HopkinsUniversity School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Nanjing, China. dr. joe renouard teaches at the johns hopkinsuniversity school of advanced international studies (sais) in nanjing, china