Written by Huang Wei.

December 13 was China’s National Memorial Day. A state memorial ceremony was held for the Nanjing Massacre in 1937. There was massive coverage of Xi’s speech, especially with respect to the number of victims and China’s official attitude towards Japan. Not surprisingly, there were comments about China trying to play history in order to constrain Japan. But that misses the point. History can be a card, whether for China or Japan to play, because it is not neutralised and still remains an issue in East Asian international relations. But why? There is grudge, grievance and dislike, all legitimate, and all preventing people from being fair. Every related party is being strict with others while lenient with themselves.

It is prevalent among the Japanese that history is an issue because China keeps it as one, by not accepting repeated Japanese apologies and conducting ‘anti-Japanese education’. It is wrong by confusing cause and effect, but its supporting arguments make perfect sense.

First, Japan has officially apologised many times. There was an apology, though not thorough, in the 1972 joint communique when China and Japan normalised their relations. Former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama stated in 1995:

‘During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.’

The 1998 Joint Declaration on Building a Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation for Peace and Development says:

‘The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious distress and damage that Japan caused to the Chinese people through its aggression against China during a certain period in the past and expressed deep remorse for this.’

Japanese leaders, including Koizumi and Abe, haven’t discarded the Murayama statement or official documents between the two governments.

When it comes to history and apology, Japan is often compared with Germany. That is not a fair comparison. There are many actors shaping the process of historical reconciliation, not Japan alone. How the US influences the post-war regional architecture and how other countries react play a significant role. Even when disregarding all these factors, Japan not doing as well as Germany, does not mean Japan has not done enough. Whether Japan has done its best, however, is a different question, and does matter.

Second, Japan has been a pacifist country since 1945. It may seem revisionist and provocative recently, but it is in fact a ‘sheep in a wolf’s clothing’. Japan’s legal and political system and public opinion put effective constraints on its military aggrandisement, and collective self-defence should be distinguished from aggression. Unfortunately, extremist voices tend to be the loudest, but they are not the mainstream.

Third, history should be viewed separately from current affairs, or at least, various baselines should be employed in discussions to provide a fair analysis. History is the root of many current issues, but not the framework. Many other things that have happened since then also have great impact, as well as things that could happen in the future depending on related parties’ attitudes. Admittedly, it was Japan’s crime to invade China and the US was to blame for acknowledging Japan’s administration of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, but the rising tensions during the last several years should not be attributed to Japan only. Both Japan and China could have done better in managing the crisis.

Nonetheless, it is not China that deliberately chooses to keep history an international relations issue and make it difficult for Japan. The responsibility lies with Japan and the international community.

First, China has officially accepted Japan’s apologies and endorsed Japan’s post-war peaceful development. China has always maintained the position that a small minority of militarists launched aggressive wars and the majority of Japanese people were also victims. As listed above, the joint documents contain Japan’s apologies that are accepted by China. Former premier Wen Jiabao gave a speech in the Japanese Diet in 2007, he said,

‘Since the normalization of diplomatic ties between China and Japan, the Japanese Government and leaders have on many occasions stated their position on the historical issue, admitted that Japan had committed aggression and expressed deep remorse and apology to the victimized countries. The Chinese Government and people appreciate the position they have taken… After the war, Japan embarked on the path of peaceful development, and became a leading economic power and influential member in the international community. As a friendly neighbor of Japan, the Chinese people support the Japanese people in their continued pursuit of peaceful development.’

However, revisionist voices never die down in Japan. In his July 1999 meeting with former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo, former Premier Zhu Rongji said, ‘China always maintains that the majority of Japanese people hold the right attitude towards history. But we should not neglect that there are still people in Japan who attempt to deny or whitewash the aggression and hurt Chinese people’s feelings.’ China does not fix its attention merely on revisionist voices, but they are magnified on the media and seem so powerful that Chinese people can’t help wondering: does the apology still count, are they really the minority, and how influential are their opinions? The Chinese have a reason to be alerted, for minorities can be powerful and lead the whole nation into the wrong way, just as happened before and during the war.

Second, collective memory should be distinguished from foreign policy. History has to be taught. It is inevitable that revisiting the history of the war invokes hatred towards the Japanese invaders, but that’s a side effect, not the Chinese government’s manipulation. The history could and should be taught in a more neutralised way, but it does not mean China has been doing it all wrong. It is something that the international community should encourage and help China to do, instead of accusing China of not doing. Again, you can’t expect every wronged party to forgive thoroughly overnight. Even if the history education is totally neutralised, collective memory will still sustain, with natural hatred towards the Japanese aggressors, but hopefully not towards Japan as a country or future generations of Japanese people. It depends on the governments and media in both countries to reinforce the distinctions between the past, the current, and the future.

Third, there is black and white, no matter how much freedom of speech you enjoy. The point I made about extremists being the loudest are raised by many non-Chinese observers too, but they tend to focus on Japan’s democracy and freedom of speech, vaguely implying that China is somewhat inferior. Some also point out that the Chinese government should be more careful with the number of victims, for one piece of dubious evidence may compromise the government’s credibility and deprive it of its moral high ground. What they say may well be true, but still miss the point. The point is Japan was the aggressor and China was the victim during the war. The reason why it is so easy for Japan and the international community to miss the point is they don’t like China (mainly the CPC government). One article on China’s national memorial day begins with ‘in the city of Nanjing in eastern China, polluting factories have been shut temporarily, streets cleaned and a third of government cars kept off roads…’ Is the pollution so relevant that it has to be mentioned in a sarcastic way when Chinese people commemorate the war victims? Be it the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Incident, media censorship, or whatever people don’t like about China now, they are different issues from history and should be discussed separately. Sadly, both the media and their audience are used to, and probably comfortable with, looking at China with dislike.

China accuses such perspectives as bias, or demonisation. Most of them are just unintentional and reasonable dislike, which does not compromise objectivity.

First, stereotypes are one of the basic approaches of human cognition. China is huge and complicated. It is difficult even for Chinese people to understand the country comprehensively and objectively, let alone foreigners, with language barriers, administrative constraints, and probably lack of interest and necessity. Categorisation is useful to provide general information, and stereotypes prevail when the cognitive targets are not familiar. Stereotypes are always nonspecific and often exaggerated, but it is a cognitive obstacle every human being should try to overcome, not something exclusive to Westerners.

Second, self-criticism would be more helpful for China than self-congratulation. Many Chinese feel they are treated unfairly by the international community as the rest of the world only sees the negative side of China and often neglects the positive side. The rest of the world is not a primary school teacher who has the responsibility to appreciate each student’s achievements with a smile. If the criticism is based on facts, no matter how rare the case is— more often than not the cases are not rare anyway, China would gain more international respect if it takes action to improve instead of extolling its own achievements, as if getting an A in economics guarantees A+ in every other subjects. Many so-called biases are held by experts who know China much better than average Chinese, they have their rights to dislike China, while criticising China objectively.

Third, China needs time, so do others. The chic ‘soft power’ discussion misled China to treat national image as a technical issue that can be solved by publicity strategy. It is not. It matters more what China is than how China tries to appear. Chinese leaders finally realised this, and want to introduce the panorama of China to the world. China needs time to address many of its problems. Former Premier Zhu Rongji told journalists ‘Don’t be too anxious, I’m more anxious than you!’ when talking about China’s human rights improvement in 1999. By the same token, China should be patient with its national image campaign, as it also takes time for the rest of the world to understand, empathise, and like China.

It is not easy to be fair, but at least let’s all try.

Huang Wei is a PhD candidate at King’s College London and a CPI Blog Emerging Scholar. Image Credit: CC by sasha luo/Flickr.


  1. Thank you, one of the most balanced and constructive observations I have read on China-Japan relations in the last four years, during which time I was living in China. I agree very much with the substance but have two thoughts to offer.
    First, while I agree with the perception of negative reporting by many outside observers, a more open and honest position by the CCP on its own past would surely help: Japanese atrocities, real or imagined, are covered by the domestic media on an almost daily basis. But the horrors of the famine arising from the ‘Great Leap Forward’ go unreported, or are blamed on outside embargos. A willingness by the CPC to deal with its own past mistakes would surely make outsiders more ready to assess their position more objectively.
    Second, surely a step forward would be a joint history textbook or curriculum. There is at least one precedent for this, in the Caucasus. Unfortunately, the efforts to produce a joint one between Korean and Japan seem to have got nowhere, suggesting that while the reactionary forces in Japan may be a minority, they are not without influence.
    And an observation: much is made in East Asia (Korea as well as China) of the difference between Germany and Japan in atoning for past behaviour. But in Germany’s case, doing so was surely much easier because of the accompanying recognition in its neighbours, most especially France, that unless all could live in peace together, the continent was doomed to destruction. Hence the creation of what is now the EU, but also a concerted effort in France to teach German in schools, establish town-twinning relationships and other people-to-people links. We still have a long way to go to see anything comparable in East Asia.

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