Friday, April 01, 2005

Remembering the Forgotten War

Looking back on the sixtieth anniversary of the surrender of Japan, Rana Mitter finds the political background to the demonstrations in China against Japanese history textbooks are full of complexities.

THE STREETS OF DOWNTOWN SHANGHAI are filled with angry students loudly protesting against Japanese aggression and demanding that the Chinese government stand up to the imperialists from across the sea. This is not the spring of 2005, when anti-Japanese protests in dries across China shocked observers around the world with their virulence, but December 9th, 1935, when students took to the streets, angered by the increasing encroachment of the Japanese empire into north China.

Seventy years after those demonstrations, it seems that Chinese anger against Japan is still a factor that can give rise to popular protest and even threaten governments. Why should this theatre of war remain a flashpoint? Often, the issue is portrayed in stark terms. The argument heard on the Chinese side is that, unlike the Germans, the Japanese have not accepted their war guilt, that Japanese school children do not learn about their country's brutal wartime past in school, and that there is a rising right-wing tide in Japan that wants to rehabilitate the war as a noble undertaking.

Before we in the West pass judgement on the inability of Japan and China to come to terms with the legacy of the Sino-Japanese War sixty years after it ended in 1945, we should consider just how shamefully little we know about that war. The Japanese state, which had had a significant empire in Asia from the late nineteenth century, reacted to economic crisis in the late 1920s with aggression, and encroached onto Chinese territory throughout the 1930s. It justified its occupation of Manchuria and the north by claiming it had a special role in liberating China from Western imperialism, but Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the Chinese Communists were united in seeing Japanese occupation as merely the replacement of one empire with another. China and Japan coexisted uneasily for several years, until an unplanned clash near Beijing on July 7th, 1937, finally escalated into all-out war.

Over the next few months the Nationalist government desperately attempted to defend China's cultural and economic heartland in the east as Japanese troops poured in from Manchuria, Korea, and by sea. Shanghai was lost by autumn, and the Chinese capital, Nanjing, was evacuated inland to Chongqing (Chungking). What was notable in those early months was the sheer savagery of the conflict. It quickly became a modern 'total war', involving civilians and military alike. The Japanese troops had been encouraged to believe that they would quickly conquer the Chinese, who were portrayed in propaganda as weak and cowardly. When they found that many Chinese troops were well trained and fought bravely, the Japanese became even wilder and more frustrated, laying bloody waste to the areas they conquered. As the Chinese troops retreated, it was often the civilian population that was on the end of the Japanese Imperial Army's anger, as in the notorious Nanjing Massacre (Rape of Nanking) of December 1937-January 1938, when Japanese troops murdered huge numbers of Chinese civilians.

The achievement of the Chinese, and particularly of the Nationalist government, in holding down close to a million Japanese troops in China has been underplayed in later historical accounts, even though the conflict became a part of the wider world war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In the absence of detailed figures, estimates of the number of Chinese killed in the war run from 15 to 35 million, comparable to the huge loss of life in the Soviet Union. The number of refugees within China has been calculated at 80 million. The Communist victory in 1949 has been, rightly, attributed in part to the wide sense of disgust at the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalist government. But we should also recognize that the devastation of the Japanese onslaught from 1937 threw the Nationalists utterly off- course and cut short Chiang Kai-shek's attempts to build up a modern state. These attempts had many flaws even before war broke out, but historians have nonetheless begun to reassess Chiang's government as a serious modernizing force. The war cut his project short, and with Chiang Kai-shek's forced move to the far west, and the loss of huge amounts of industrial and agricultural capacity, the Japanese had effectively made the task of reconstruction impossible. The killings committed by the Japanese -- by sword and gun in Nanjing, with bombs at Chongqing -- are the most obvious aspect of that country's crimes against China during the war. But the destruction of the attempt to build a new state was a more fundamental disaster. In 1949, with Nationalist credibility destroyed, the Communists found the mantle of reconstruction fell to them instead.

Yet the reality of Japanese brutality in wartime China should not lead us into a simplistic mistake that nothing has changed in Japan since. Postwar democratization means that there are many different Japanese understandings of the war. These include, but are not limited to, extreme rightwing views which deny that wartime atrocities took place at all. Japan has a lively civil society and a powerful, nonconformist popular culture.

Since the early 1980s, the revision of Japanese school textbooks on the war has become a subject of controversy not just in China, but also for South Korea. The Japanese Education Ministry requires that books used for high-school history classes are approved before they are used, and the contents of some of those textbooks have been the source of conflict. Reports of attempts to replace phrases such as 'Japan's aggression in China' with 'Japan's advance into China' have understandably created anger in countries that suffered hugely during the era of Japanese colonialism.

The textbook that sparked the controversy that led to the Chinese street demonstrations in spring 2005, while approved by the Ministry of Education, is actually used by just 4 per cent of all schools in Japan. Other texts, which give far more detail on Japan's wartime behaviour in China and elsewhere in Asia, are used much more frequently. One reason for this is the continuing power of Japan's teaching unions, which have been strongly left-wing ever since the war. While the Ministry is generally conservative, those who teach in the schools themselves are not. For years, the left-wing historian Ienaga Saburo sued the Ministry on successive occasions to demand the use in schools of a textbook that gave a full account of Japan's wartime guilt. Although Ienaga suffered many setbacks in his battle with the courts before his death in 2002, his overall point was made: by the late 1990s, every single history textbook approved for use in Japanese high schools mentioned the Nanjing Massacre, and all but one gave figures for the number of Chinese dead.

Nor is it true that some conspiracy has prevented the Japanese public knowing about the atrocities committed during the war. Indeed, it is only in recent years that the English-reading public worldwide has been made aware of the Nanjing Massacre, largely because Iris Chang's book on the topic spent weeks on the international bestseller list. The first investigations into the Massacre were undertaken, not by Westerners, nor even the Chinese, but by left-wing Japanese journalists in the 1970s who were determined to uncover a story ignored by a post-war society that had dedicated itself to economic growth and a self-declaredly pacifist approach to international politics. The journalist Honda Katsuichi caused a national sensation in 1971 with his serialized Travels in China, an account of Japanese wartime brutality that drew on interviews with Chinese survivors of massacres.

Honda's purpose was to alert the Japanese public to what he felt was a reluctance to come to terms with the reality of their behaviour in Asia during the war. His work was fiercely attacked by the right, who argued that the evidence was either fabricated or exaggerated, and extremists physically attacked writers and organizations associated with the new historical understanding. Nonetheless, from the 1970s, the idea that Japan had committed terrible crimes in China became a widely understood part of public discussion in Japan, neither censored nor hidden from view.

There is, all the same, real substance to the charge that Japan has not come to terms with its wartime past. Particularly worrying is the recent immense growth in sales of the comic books of Kobayashi Yoshinori, who portrays in cartoon form Japan's wartime experience as a heroic mission to liberate Asia from the yoke of white imperialism.

Many inside and outside Japan have been disturbed by the repeated visits of various prime ministers, including the current incumbent, Junichiro Koizumi, to the Yasukuni shrine, a national memorial where many architects of Japan's wars in Asia and the Pacific are buried. Koizumi's assurance that he is visiting the shrine not to honour any specific individuals, but rather to honour Japan's war losses, cuts little ice in China or Korea. Also, Japan used its American-imposed 'peace constitution' in the post-war era to portray itself not as an aggressive invader before 1945, but rather as a victim nation, the first and only country to suffer atomic bombing.

While no one would argue with the sentiments that such bombings should never be allowed to happen again, there is little discussion in many of Japan's anti-nuclear peace gardens and institutes as to why the bombings took place in the first place, and this lack of context makes it seem as if the US air force simply appeared out of a blue sky to attack a defenceless and innocent nation. Yet Chinese who had lived through the bacteriological bombing of Chongqing in 1939 were probably not that sympathetic to the horrific plight of the Japanese A-bomb victims. As late as 2002, I was told in Chongqing about a local delicacy consisting of a fried egg with chilli sauce on it -- Chongqingers call it 'Bombing Tokyo'.

Japanese courts have tended to dismiss attempts by elderly Chinese survivors of war crimes to claim compensation, on the technical grounds that agreements made in the 1950s officially ended all Chinese wartime reparation claims on Japan. There is an uncomfortable legalism about this argument.

An obvious question can also be asked about the textbook controversy: if it is true that the problematic textbooks are so little used in schools, why approve them at all? The answer is that there is still a domestic right-wing constituency that makes the continuing availability of such books an ideological touchstone. Convinced that there is a left-wing conspiracy in schools, the extreme right seeks assurance from its MPs that they will hold the line on some public presence for the version of history that champions the idea that Japan's wartime role was a liberating and noble one.

The position of most mainstream right-wing Japanese politicians is not to glorify the war, but rather to wish it would go away. As the war fades into the past, there is certainly a more self-confident air among many Japanese politicians and voters who feel that the country needs to move on from the long post-war (sengo) period, and find a new, more assertive role in the region and the world. But for most Japanese, there is little desire to use the country's wartime record as the basis for their new strength in the region: instead, they wish to be seen as a peaceful, economically powerful state with an unfortunate past that is just that -- past.
Just as clearly, as China's own rise in the region becomes daily more apparent, the Chinese have no intention of letting the Japanese portray themselves in that light. The most recent blow-up over textbooks took place just at the moment when Japan was making the case that it should take a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. China made sure that memories of the past would help to scupper Japan's hopes for the future.

Yet China's own role in the textbook arguments is hardly straightforward. One of the reasons why China's wartime contribution was not appreciated more in the West was the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, which turned China from ally to ideological enemy. But Cold War boundaries worked both ways, and in the new People's Republic of China many areas of discussion about the war were simply off-limits. Any account of Chiang Kai-shek, by then heading a Nationalist government in Taiwan, had to paint him as a traitor and demon; no mention could be made of the fact that the Nationalists had played a significant part in the defeat of Japan. On the other hand, the People's Republic saw little benefit in anti-Japanese propaganda. The Japanese were hardly going to invade again, and there seemed to be mileage in trying to detach them from the Cold War embrace of the United States. Therefore, there was relatively little discussion of Japanese wartime behaviour in China from the 1940s to the 1970s.
In the 1980s, however, global and regional politics shifted. Chiang and Mao were both dead, and the leaders of the People's Republic now wanted to tempt Taiwan into reunification. Official propaganda now stressed the unity, rather than the divisions, between the Communist mainland and Nationalist Taiwan and made much of their shared resistance against the Japanese. There was less need to appease Japan; instead, it was felt that reminding Japan of its wartime record (and encouraging the odd popular demonstration against that record in the streets of Chinese cities) was a good way to soften up the Japanese government into giving loans and investment to China at preferential rates, as well as distracting the population from the decline in Marxist ideology at home.

Museums of the Nanjing Massacre and of the wider war against Japan were established in the 1980s in China, but these were openly declared to be 'sites for encouraging patriotic education', not coolly objective institutions for historical explanation. The historical line had changed, but the use of history to serve contemporary politics had not. Neither China nor Japan are monolithic societies. Japan's responses are much more varied than those in China where discussion is still restricted, yet it is too simplistic to argue that the Chinese government is simply manipulating Chinese popular feeling in the dispute about wartime history.
In 2005 the government found it politically useful to give permission for anti-Japanese demonstrations but was alarmed to discover that the young urban population was in fact more genuinely hostile to Japan than it had anticipated. So the authorities abruptly banned a big anti-Japanese demonstration, organized via websites, which was supposed to fill Tian'anmen Square. Not only would the associations of Tian'anmen Square have been problematic for the Communist Party, but memories of the student protests that took place on December 9th, 1935, may have also been in their minds. For while the students of seventy years ago were protesting against Japan, just a few years later they were protesting against their own government of Chiang Kai-shek; and soon after that, Chiang was forced to flee to Taiwan, never to return. The Communist Party has no intention of letting that lesson from history come back into popular memory. Yet if it fails to maintain a strong economy, and if public pressure boils over, it is hard to know whether the Party can continue to control the ways in which popular opinion reacts to the past.

By Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter is lecturer in Chinese history and politics at Oxford University, and author of A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World (2004).

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