Japan and China remain divided over how to remember successive wars dating from the Sino–Japanese war in 1894 to World War II (known in China as the War of Resistance against Japan [1937–1945]). Official histories in both countries have been written to serve political needs, not respect historical accuracy.
Writing history under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always been designed to bolster the current leader and his legitimacy. It did not suit Mao Zedong to dwell on the war with Japan. Apart from one occasion, he withheld Communist forces from fighting. After the People’s Republic of China was established, Mao chose to approve films on the war that depicted Kuomintang (KMT) officers and landlords as class enemies who tried to betray heroic workers and peasants to the Japanese soldiers. Mao’s claim to historic legitimacy stemmed from his victory in the civil war.
Despite his campaigns against class enemies and traitors of many kinds, Mao did not launch any campaign against alleged collaborators with the Japanese. Many of those dislodged from urban offices by the returning KMT after the Japanese surrender were welcomed in rural Yan’an as people with much-needed skills. Mao did not attack Japan diplomatically during most of the time he held power, except when some Japanese leaders displayed a preference for old friends in Taiwan.
Attitudes (and therefore history) began to change after Deng Xiaoping became leader. Class struggle was dropped in favour of a new emphasis on the unity of the Chinese people, which from 1979 onwards also included their ‘compatriots’ in Taiwan. The CCP’s historical legitimacy henceforth was based on the War of Resistance Against Japan. There can be little doubt that this was welcomed by many of the millions of people who had genuinely suffered from Japanese wartime atrocities. But the official historical narrative was less interested in historical accuracy than in extolling the alleged role of the CCP in defeating the Japanese aggressors, even though the bulk of the fighting was done by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces and not the Red Army.
In 1993, after the Tiananmen disaster, Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, deepened the call for patriotism by setting up a huge patriotic education campaign that persists to this day. Japan in particular was excoriated as the last and most cruel of the foreigners who had humiliated China over 100 years, beginning with the First Opium War in 1839–42. It was also emphasised that Japan had not properly apologised and atoned for its aggression. Until it did so, it was argued, there was a danger of a revival of militarism, which could threaten the security of the region as a whole.
The CCP depicts itself as the authentic representative of China’s past glory at home and in the world more broadly. The ‘rejuvenation of China’ promised by CCP leaders and Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ all grow out of this history.
There is a tendency in Japan, too, to present itself as a victim of the war. Much is made of the bombing of Japanese cities — including the firebombing of Tokyo — culminating in the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But few Japanese residents knew much about the actual fighting and the cruelties inflicted on civilians and prisoners of war in China, on the Korean peninsula and throughout Southeast Asia.
After the first year of the American led occupation, administrators did not dwell on the pursuit of war criminals or exposing the horrors of Japanese conduct during the war. From 1947 onwards the main goal of the occupation was to rebuild Japan as a pillar against communism in East Asia. Imperial bureaucrats and former Zaibatsus (business conglomerates that held much power in the Japanese economy from the Meiji era to the end of World War II) such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi, which had served the imperial war machine were called back to promote Japan’s economic recovery.
Former imperial officials, who might otherwise have been prosecuted for war crimes, assumed important positions after the end of the Allied Occupation in 1952. They could hardly be expected to have exposed wartime horrors. The most prominent of these was Nobusuke Kishi — the grandfather of Prime Minister Abe — who went on to become prime minister. He and his associates in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party took the view that Japanese warfare was justified, alleged wartime atrocities were fabricated or exaggerated and that the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was no more than victor’s justice.
Such right-wing views still animate important political figures in Japan, to the chagrin of many Koreans and Chinese. These views are not representative of Japanese historians. Indeed, it is Japanese historians who have done most to expose the fallacies of the Japanese right wing’s interpretation of history. The United States has done little to persuade the Yushukan Museum, adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine, to correct its version of history that holds the Roosevelt administration responsible for the war.
The contested Japanese versions of history are not really about historical accuracy. They reflect divergent views about Japanese identity and its future orientation. The rightists envision a Japan that is proud of its past and that can deploy its armed forces without restrictions. Above all it should be a Japan that is ultimately freed of its cultural and strategic dependence on the United States.
The more conservative mainstream differs from this vision mainly in recognising the importance of maintaining the US–Japan alliance and of finding a way to get on with neighbours, especially China. Mainstream Japanese opinion continues to be wedded to the pacifism pursued since the end of the occupation, but it is divided on whether to continue to rely on the strategic dependence offered by the United States or to find a way to get on with China.
Michael Yahuda is professor emeritus of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a visiting scholar at George Washington University.