Historical Memory and its Impact on Sino-Japanese Relations

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Yesterday marked an important anniversary in the history of modern China. In keeping with Western Europe, the United States and others, the country commemorated the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War and remembered its war dead. Beijing declared September 3 to be a national holiday, so that all Chinese citizens could take part in events. However, the rhetoric and tenor of the Chinese commemorations was different in many respects from the somber, understated and generally uncontroversial American and European ceremonies.

Taking a strong tone

For a start, Beijing invited foreign militaries to participate in a massive military parade in which more than 10,000 Chinese troops marched. These included troops from Russia and Mongolia, as well as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. China is reportedly hoping to have at least matched the firepower and international participation Russia achieved at its recent Victory Day celebrations. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the celebrations placed European governments and Washington in a bit of a bind, with many world leaders chary of attending this portion of the commemoration, lest they offend Japan or give the impression that they support militarism in the region. There is even talk that the United States pressured the South Korean president not to attend the military parade.

One leader who was under pressure to turn down China’s invitation was Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who definitively turned down the invitation to attend by citing his parliamentary schedule and domestic matters. In mid-August, Abe reiterated Japan’s official “remorse” and “condolences” for the war dead, but did not issue a new apology of his own. Furthermore, Abe seemed to draw a line under past apologies, saying that Japan’s “children, grandchildren and even further generations” should not be “predestined to apologize” for actions with which they had no connection.

In marked contrast, the second prong of Beijing’s commemorative strategy played up some well-used themes in the Chinese national narrative and historical memory surrounding World War Two to its domestic audience. While China has mostly weaned itself from the theme of “national humiliation” since the 2008 Beijing Olympics propelled its national stature, victimhood and humiliation continue to be useful concepts for promoting nationalism among the young, and are still used liberally in schools’ history curricula, publicly funded museums and other projects. It remains mandatory for students of all ages to visit war museums to learn about China’s past humiliation.

As part of this ramped-up commemorative strategy, an exhibition was re-launched in July 2015 at the “Museum of the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression” in Wanping, on the outskirts of Beijing. This highlights the horrors of the war with sensational exhibits, including a skull from a person killed in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, and graphic images of Japanese soldiers raping Chinese victims. (Most current news reporting describes the exhibition as “new”, but the present author visited the museum in December 2014 and saw many of the same exhibits under the same title, “Great Victory, Historical Contribution”.) Designated as a “patriotic education base” and sited near the historic Marco Polo Bridge, this museum is free to all, hosting large groups from Chinese schools as well as foreign delegations arriving in Beijing for state visits. The same museum has a highly interactive Mandarin version of its website, designed to attract Chinese youth and other interested citizens into volunteering for the museum and learning about China’s war history.

China is also eager to get its message out to the world and drive home a key historical narrative about its role as a world power that has fostered world peace and understanding since the 1930s-40s, while ostensibly seeking closure for past hurts from a seemingly unrepentant Japan. While the domestic audience is the primary target of the aforementioned exhibitions, significant portions of the accompanying texts are translated into Japanese and English. The dominant message is that China and its people made great sacrifices throughout World War Two in order to help the Allied powers fight “fascism”. A secondary motif highlights the extreme brutality and sadism of the Japanese military, underscored with graphic images and chilling dioramas of scenes from the war.

More generally, there appears to be a trend of increased media and entertainment based on World War Two themes, primarily made for Chinese consumption but gaining worldwide attention. In recent years, several big budget films and hundreds of television series have been produced, some to critical acclaim. While the television projects tend to be overtly anti-Japanese in tone, (and sometimes outrageously conceived, with ridiculous special effects such as Chinese soldiers cleaving Japanese ones in two with special laser effects) the film projects are typically better conceived and increasingly more sophisticated in presentation. By using Japan and Japanese characters (usually military officers or soldiers) as foils against Chinese characters, these films laud Chinese nationalism and heroism, or interrogate more complex questions about loyalty to country, featuring spies and Chinese collaborators, or morality in war, or the inhumanity of war for all who participate in it. They bring to life, rightly or wrongly, “memories” for a younger generation of Chinese who have no direct knowledge of the war.

In many ways, mass media – popular films in particular – can (and do) influence citizens’ perceptions of key historical events, and collective memory. However, there is some room for cautious optimism on the impact of Chinese-made films on the minds of young Chinese and their views of the war. Some increasingly sophisticated film projects have emerged from time to time. Lu Chuan’s The City of Life and Death (Chinese title “Nanjing! Nanjing!”) stands out for its use of a Japanese soldier as the main protagonist and through whose eyes the audience views most of the action. While many Chinese viewers criticized the director for taking an overly “sympathetic” tone towards the Japanese (the protagonist was also played by a Japanese actor), others lauded him for breaking away from the more typical and predictable route of presenting all Japanese characters as “bad” and all Chinese ones as “good”.

A vexed relationship forever?

It is well-known that Sino-Japanese relations remain complicated by multiple layers of misunderstanding and decades of suspicion, largely stemming from Japan’s military actions in China between 1931 and 1945. The issue of whether Japan has sincerely apologized for its past brutality in China continues to dog bilateral ties, and can be seen as largely a matter of perception rather than fact. From Tokyo’s perspective, the apology has already been made, and made more than once by past and present leaders. From Beijing’s viewpoint, this apology has been insincere and not made often enough. Each time a minister or other significant Japanese official visits the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, all past remorse and contrition fall by the wayside. Having said that, both governments have good reason to keep domestic nationalism simmering, partly to distract from problems on the home-front, but also to engage in periodic outbursts of one-upmanship and brinksmanship. It is almost as if the two countries repeatedly tear the bandages off this deep wound, refusing to allow it to heal completely.

China’s commemorative celebrations have thus set the tone for the immediate future of its fraught relationship with Japan. But while Beijing remains keen to highlight its role as a reliable ally wartime and international player, the manner in which it is doing so risks alienating Japan. China’s ambitious and militaristic overtures in the South China Sea in the past months, as well as the military parade component of its September 3 festivities, have led Abe and others to warn against Chinese revisionism in the Asia-Pacific. Yet, while it is still too early to tell if Beijing has irreversibly started on the path toward revisionism, how China chooses to remember its past has certainly set Tokyo on edge today.

Julia Lau is Lecturer at McDaniel College in Political Science and International Relations, and Lecturer at The Catholic University of America in Politics. She has an LLM from the National University of Singapore and MA degrees in Security Studies and Government from Georgetown University, Washington, DC. Her doctoral research is on China’s war memory, focusing on media and museum representation of the Nanjing Massacre and the Second World War, and their impact on Chinese nationalism and Sino-Japanese relations.

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One reply on “Historical Memory and its Impact on Sino-Japanese Relations”

Thank you for a very helpful narrative of the relationship between China and Japan today.

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