“It is certainly a false accusation to say that our country was an aggressor nation,” wrote the chief of Japan’s Air Force, General Toshio Tamogami, in a prize-winning essay sponsored by the Apa Group, which underlined the ongoing controversy over history education as it relates to war memory of Japanese imperialism in Asia.1 Immediately after the announcement of his award, Asashi Shinbun, the leading Japanese newspaper reported that Tamogami accused the US of ensnaring Japan into World War II and denied the occurrence of Japanese military activities in Asia. Shortly after the news of Tamogami’s essay, the Japanese Defense Ministry announced his dismissal. Despite Tamogami’s counter-argument of his right to freedom of expression, the Japanese government stood by its decision in order to dodge criticism from China and Korea. Although China and South Korea voiced shock in response to Tamogami’s case, both governments accepted that his view did not represent the Japanese government’s official position.2

Why does such a view of history arise and what does Tamogami’s case imply about the role of history in Japan’s foreign policy-making? Most importantly, why does history dating

1 "Ex-Asdf Chief of Staff Sticks to His Guns at Diet," Asahi Shinbun, November 12 2008.

2 "The Ghost of Wartimes Past," Economist 389, no. 8605 (2008).

back almost a century ago play such a significant role in defining Japan’s relations with its neighboring countries? In order to answer these questions, I examine different interpretations of major historical events in the last century, specifically the diverging war memories of Japanese imperialism in Asia. One of the most contested issues in Sino-Japanese relations is the interpretation of Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia in Japanese middle school history textbooks. The so-called textbook controversy emerged as a result of accusations over the government screening of textbooks downplaying Japan’s military past. This issue represents the larger geopolitical problems surrounding contemporary Sino-Japanese relations.

Public memory of a nation’s past is not a simple replication of objective facts, but a collective narrative retrieved from many retold stories.3 This official presentation of war memories deserves attention because history dating back to World War II has been a major obstacle to Sino-Japanese relations since the 1980s. Furthermore, given Japan’s economic influence in the region and China’s growing role in international community, both countries hold key interests that can determine the future of Asia. Thus, it becomes essential to understand origins of this ongoing battle over war memories, which influences China and Japan’s economically interwoven yet politically delicate relations.

3 Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories : The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). P7.


The textbook controversy symbolizes a fundamental dichotomy in public war memories in China and Japan. In order to understand the impact of war memories on Sino-Japanese relations, I explore the origins and nature of the textbook controversy by discussing why the controversy came about and how each government responded to the issue. In analyzing the textbook controversy, I hope to address the following questions. Why is a history textbook a constant source of diplomatic tensions between China and Japan? Why does it play such an important role in Sino-Japanese relations?

History provides an opportunity to construct an appealing national identity through glorification of a nation’s past. This theory helps us understand the controversy surrounding Japan’s history textbooks. I explore the controversy from the perspective of Japan by examining a series of events that accentuate historically distorted war memories. This examination of textbook controversy at the domestic level will allow us to comprehend this public reaction as well as its political repercussions in the region. Conversely, the Chinese government employs a strategy to construct the national identity by engaging in similar censorship of history textbooks and other forms of control over media. China’s victim mentality contributes to its consistent demand for apologies, which in turn are perceived in Japan as a direct assault on its national identity. This pattern undermines many bilateral initiatives; in turn, such continuous diplomatic failures sustain this dysfunctional cycle of retaliation.

The Franco-German efforts to establish a unified view of wartime history, which led to subsequent economic and political integration in Europe, provides reference for one approach to reducing government censorship and extreme reinterpretation of historical events based on various political and ideological views. By comparing the postwar experience of China and Japan to that of France and Germany, I hope to gain insights about possibilities for mutual cooperation and regional integration between China and Japan.

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