Scholars' Blog

29 April 2014 - Financial Times
Haining Liu
By Haining Liu

Confront our bitter history or suffer its revenge

Relations between China and Japan are rarely better than acidic, and last week brought another reminder of how easily they can turn venomous. In Tokyo about 150 parliamentarians attended the Yasukuni shrine, erected in homage to hundreds of Japanese war criminals as well as the country’s war dead, drawing shrieks of protest from Beijing. Yet the persistent enmity between the two countries is bewildering to many outsiders, rooted in squabbles so obscure that they can even look manufactured.

Foreign statesmen have to tread a fine line. Consider the collection of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim as their own. President Barack Obama stated last week that the barren archipelago fell under a defence treaty that obliges America to come to Japan’s aid in the event of a military attack, the first time that Washington had offered such an assurance. But Mr Obama also warned Tokyo against provoking China. His intervention is unlikely to have pleased either side.

Another prominent American seems to have gone out of his way to irritate both adversaries. Oliver Stone, the Hollywood director whose films include Born on the Fourth of July, last week berated Chinese filmmakers for failing to probe their country’s history. Not so long ago it was the Japanese he was upbraiding, for what he said were inadequate apologies for past acts of war.

And that is the key word: history. Centuries of conflict have left a thick residue of emotion on the national psyche of both countries. Analysts often focus on strategic issues such as natural resources, but the countries’ relations are shaped as much by popular sentiment.

At the centre of the emotional storm is arguably one of the darkest moments in human history: the Nanjing Massacre, an atrocity committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in the winter of 1937, in China’s then capital city.

About 20,000 cases of rape occurred in the first month of the Japanese occupation of the city, according to the judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, held in Tokyo after the war. Many Chinese civilians were falsely branded combatants and killed. Yet inside Japan, there are voices of denial. Exactly how many civilians were killed by the Imperial Army in Nanjing? The Chinese government says it was 300,000. Some extreme Japanese nationalists say there were no civilian deaths at all, while others put the number at 20,000, in line with the conclusions of the IMTFE.

True, the inflated Chinese estimate serves the government’s propaganda purposes better than it honours the memory of the victims. But bickering over numbers is a shabby way to atone for a monstrous atrocity. It remains an open wound, and every quibble feels like another grain of salt rubbed into the sore.

Politicians on both sides have either ignored this pain or manipulated it. The young, who have never lived through times of war, are most susceptible. Japanese nationalists want schools to capture more "light" than "shadows" to their teaching of Japan’s wartime conduct, to encourage children to take pride in their country’s past. In Yokohama city, about 70,000 secondary school students use history textbooks that describe the Nanjing Massacre, in a mere two lines, as an incident whose death toll cannot be determined.

There are equally worrying developments in China, where the younger generation receives a patriotic education that focuses on ideology rather than facts. These children know little about a past in which their country was extremely weak. In classrooms, students are taught almost nothing of the apologies offered by Japan after the war, inconsistent though they were. Nor have they heard the names of China’s own unsung heroes – mostly soldiers of the Nationalist army – whose stories, being politically inconvenient, go untold. Chinese that once discouraged citizens from pursuing legal claims related to Japan’s wartime conduct no longer stand in the way, as the impoundment of a Japanese ship by a Chinese court last week showed.

Seeking justice for history is one thing; using it as a weapon is quite another. If the politicians of the past had put their peoples’ interests first, the history of geopolitical conflict would be far shorter. Neither China nor Japan could sustain a policy of military aggression that did not enjoy popular support. Calm heads on both sides should realise the need to deal with the shadows of the past.

The alternative is to allow the shared history of which both peoples know so little to have its revenge. The past haunts the present, incubating prejudice. Given time it will breed a mutual hostility that may grow into intolerance or even hatred. By then it will be too late. The time for honesty is now.

This article was published in Financial Times on 29 April 2014.