Hyper-nationalism, Contested Histories & the China-Japan Relationship

Posted on October 14, 2011 by


In the years since the end of WWII, both Japan and China have challenged and manipulated their joint  histories  for both political and social reasons.  In China the government has at times ignored and then revived whole episodes of Japan’s aggression in the Sino- Chinese war and WWII to suit their needs at the time. Meanwhile Japan has struggled between the image of victim or victimizer, as the nation’s progressives pushed for acknowledgement and remorse for the past and the establishment seeks to present a positive national image, sometimes downplaying the wrongs committed during the wars. These domestic affairs, especially Japanese textbook content and increasingly also China’s have become international incidents in the Asian region, both sides accusing the other of encouraging fierce nationalism and the corresponding anti- Chinese and anti-Japanese feeling. Their failure to address the past has meant that it is an ongoing divisive issue in the present, though some attempts are being made to rectify this.

After WWII, China was too busy having a revolution, tearing down  society and building a new one to dwell too much on the events and atrocities of the Japanese in the Second  Sino-Japanese war(1937 – 1945), consequent colonisation  and WWII. The Chinese Communist Party had no desire to glorify or bring attention to these events and as a result from 1949 to the early 1980’s they were not included in the official memory of the war[1].  Historians who attempted to investigate this area of Chinese- Japanese history were strongly discouraged.[2] The CCP wanted to present the Chinese nation as triumphant and proud, successful in the class struggle of the revolution, not as victims.  Also the inconvenient  fact that the main resistance to the invading Japanese was put up by their major rival The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lead to much of the war being omitted from history.[3]  China was also keen not to upset the relationship that had become normalised with Japan in 1972, an increasingly important trade partner and economic investor[4].  Chinese textbooks at the time put the blame for past conflicts not on Japan and its people but the small group that made up the military, young Chinese knew little of Japanese atrocities, only what was passed down from family and small communities.[5]

As time went on and the narrative of ‘class struggle’ was no longer resonating with the current generation of young Chinese, a new glue was required to keep the country bound together                 ( especially post Tiananmen Square, 1989) and patriotism and nationalism provided this.  In the early 1980’s the 100 years of humiliation was looked at again and the ‘victim narrative’[6]established, Japan and the Western colonizing powers could be blamed for China’s  past suffering, and the conclusion reached that; no communist party , no new China, of course leaving out the failures and disasters of the CCP. “Only when the horrors of the Japanese invasion were painfully clear, would Chinese citizens recognize the imperative of continuing to follow the CCP’s leadership.” [7] This new Patriotic Education was found to be more appealing to Chinese students than the dry Marxist doctrine of the past. According to James Reilly the purpose of this campaign wasn’t to whip up anti Japanese sentiment but once these ideas were introduced they took on a life of their own in the hands of party propagandists.[8]  This new history was also enthusiastically taken up by ‘history activists’ in the 1990’s who were with the loosening of restrictions in china, technology and increased interaction with the world, loudly voicing their issues with Japan.[9]

In the years leading up to and during WWII, when Japan was pursuing an aggressive expansionist policy in Asia, the content of school curriculums were in line with the growing militarism and nationalism of the country. [10] According to Varma “The view that Japan was entrusted the task of liberating the Asian countries from western powers only to be ruled by Japan, were ideas which were deeply instilled into the minds of the common Japanese.”[11]  Post WWII Japan has struggled with the presentation of its colonising and war time history.[12]  Issues causing debate internally in Japan and internationally amongst Japan’s politically and economically important neighbours of South Korea and China have included; lack of acknowledgement and denial of compensation for forced wartime prostitution and labour and attempts to justify and put a positive spin on Japan’s colonisation and wartime activities in Asia.[13]  Japan’s school textbooks became a stage for the differing views of history between the two powerhouses of Asia.

In Japan after the end of WWII there was the development of a progressive, left leaning academia, but the conservative establishment, including the Ministry of Education was also retained.[14] The narratives of these two have vied to influences school textbooks, and have struggled to shape Japan’s view of its history since the 1950’s.[15] Ienaga Saburo a leading figure of the progressive textbook cause argues that, “the main problem of the textbooks is that they do not contain enough remorse for the past.”[16] And has shown “Since the 1920’s, Japan’s textbooks have taught generations of its children that war is glorious and consequently, have concealed many of the sad truths about war.”[17] This view is backed by historian Takashi Yoshida who states, there has been reluctance from the Japanese government to “portray the wartime events in a detailed and critical manner.”[18]

At the same time the conservative establishment has been critical of textbooks, claiming that they have presented Japanese history from many views including: Communist and US, but has failed to present the Japanese perspective. [19] During the 1990’s a change of government lead to an acknowledgement of Japan’s wartime aggression and an official expressions of regret were made.[20] This went against the pervading idea in Japan of having been victims, particularly of the American atomic bomb, not that of an aggressor towards its neighbours. [21] Some conservatives saw this as a further attack on the nation, and organised into revisionist groups who sought to produce and influence material used in school textbooks, aiming for them to “create a positive Japanese self image, national pride and dedication.”[22] Their work did not go unnoticed with claims from academics internationally that they were attempting to “rewrite and whitewash” Japanese history through its activities and production of textbooks.[23]  What had been mainly a  domestic struggle, had changed when China also began to explore this area of its past and other groups like the comfort women of mainly Korean and Chinese nationality began to lobby for recognition of the crimes against them and seek compensation.[24]

With China’s growing awareness of Japan’s role in its history, textbooks are closely monitored by the Chinese Government and media, and any discrepancy pounced upon. Japan also is paying attention to its portrayal in Chinese textbooks.  Both sides are critical of the content, claiming that the nationalistic overtones encourage anti Chinese and anti Japanese sentiment.  China has issues with Japan’s wording, in textbooks, the Nanjing Massacre became the Nanjing Incident, [25]and there is much dispute on the numbers of victims, descriptions’ vary from; it didn’t happen, through to it was a massacre on a huge scale with 300,000 plus dead.[26]  The changing of one word in a text can cause problems; in 1982 the Chinese government was critical when the Ministry of education substituted the words ‘Advance’ for ‘Invasion’ in the description of Japan’s activities in China.[27] According to Wang, many Japanese see a correlation between Chinese history education and anti Japanese sentiments, and the Japanese government has accused the China of “indoctrinating its students with an unbalanced view of the past”[28]  Reilly notes that there is a lack of expertise on Japan in China’s education system and though there economic success is admired, their culture and society is attacked as militaristic, a incomprehensible place that China should continue to be wary of.[29]

These disputes which were in the majority played out at a diplomatic level and in the media, in April 2005 resulted in widespread marches and riots erupting across China.  The Japanese embassy was attacked and  Japanese businesses vandalised. [30] Textbooks were not the primary cause of events, territorial disputes and Japanese efforts to gain a seat on the UN Security Council had seen Chinese discontent growing, but they had sparked off the violent reaction.[31] The Chinese Government had lost control of China’s history,[32] putting strain on its relationship with its most important neighbour who despite this, continued to have increasing and significant economic and cultural ties with them.[33] Despite textbooks being a source of conflict, attempts are being made to produce common history teaching resources.  In 2005 a textbook was published that covered the history of China, Japan and South Korea, by a committee with representation from all three countries. With an “expectation that a shared historical consciousness will eventuate as the citizens of East Asia study the history of the war of invasion and colonial rule based on fact, and engage in dialogue and debate to overcome the past.”[34]

Both China and Japan have been unable to move on successfully from their joint pasts, in particularly in respect to the events of the Sino- Japanese war and WWII.  Both sides have attempted to downplay, to the point of erasing parts of history, and also exploit and exaggerate others for social and political gain, resulting in distortions.  The increasing influence of nationalism in both countries has be seen in  the content of school books, Japan is accused of not appropriately acknowledging its past, while China has used and possibly exaggerated Japanese war crimes as a political tool.  This has put a strain on an important social and economic relationship, resulting in the creation of anti-Japanese and anti- Chinese feeling that lead to marches and riots against Japan in China. It is through textbooks that attempts are being made to create joint histories, leaving nationalism aside and allowing both countries to overcome the past.

[1] J Reilly, ’Remember history, not hatred: collective remembrance of China’s War of resistance to Japan’, Asian Modern Studies, vol.45, no.2, 2011, p.467.

[2] J Reilly, ‘China’s history activists and the war of resistance against Japan: history in the making.’, Asian Modern Studies, vol.44, no.2, March/ April 2004,  p.278.

[3] J Reilly, ‘Remember history, not hatred’, pp. 467.-470.

[4] J Qui, ‘The politics of history and historical memory in China- Japan relations.’, Journal of Chinese Political Science, vol.11, no.1, Spring 2006, p.26.

[5] J Reilly, ’Remember history not hatred’, p. 470.

[6] Z Wang, ‘National humiliation, history education, and the politics of historical memory: patriotic education campaign in China’, International Studies Quarterly,vol.52, 2008, p. 784.

[7] J Reilly, ‘Remember history not hatred’, p. 471.

[8] Ibid, p.471.

[9] J Reilly, ‘Remember history not hatred’, p.472.

[10] L Varma, ‘Japanese nationalism: response to changing regional and international environment’, China Report, vol.43, no.1, 2007, p.61.

[11] Ibid, p.61.

[12] C Schneider, ‘The Japanese history textbook controversy in East Asian perspective’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of political and social science, vol.617, no.107,2008,  p.107.

[13]ibid, p.107-108.

[14] A Bukh,’Japan’s history textbook debate: national identity in narratives of victimhood and victimization.’, Asian Survey, vol.47, no.5, September/ October 2007, p.684.

[15] ibid, p. 684.

[16] ibid, p. 684.

[17] Z Wang, ‘Old wounds, new narratives: joint history textbook writing and peace building in East Asia’, History & Memory, vol.21, no. 1, Spring/ Summer 2009,  p. 104.

[18] Ibid, p. 104.

[19] A Bukh, p. 685.

[20] C Schneider, p.110.

[21] C Scneider, p.109.

[22] C Schneider, p.113.

[23] A Bukh, p. 686.

[24] A Bukh, p. 685.

[25] J Reilly, ‘China’s history activists and the war of resistance against Japan’,p.281.

[26] C Schneider, p.114.

[27] J Reilly, ‘China’s history activists and the war of resistance against Japan’, p. 281.

[28] Z Wang, ‘Old wounds new narratives’, p. 105.

[29] J Reilly, ‘China’s history activists and the war of resistance against Japan’, p. 281.

[30] J Reilly, ‘ Remember history not hatred’,p.475.

[31] C Schneider, p.112.

[32]ibid, p.112.

[33] L Varma, p.63 & J Qui, p.27.

[34] O Sumio, ‘Historical Consciousness and Japan, China and South Korea’s shared history Teaching materials’, Political Science, vol. 58, no. 2, December 2006, p.4.


Seaniad Conroy is a 1st year Bachelor of Arts student at Latrobe University Albury Wodonga, who has returned to study, hoping to achieve a mid-life career change.  When not studying or looking after her 3 children, she spends her spare time drinking cups of tea, reading the newspaper and thinking of interesting and clever ways to avoid housework.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.