Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide to the future.
The Chinese official newspaper Renmin Ribao stated the remark above at the occasion of ten-year anniversary of the Sino-Japanese normalization in 1983.4 As the quote indicates, history plays an important role in shaping the Sino-Japanese relations. With Chinese and Japanese leaders gathering to celebrate and to express their desire to preserve peace by strengthening codevelopment, the Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations looked promising. However, contrary to this superficial friendliness, a number of incidents suggest a very different picture of Sino-Japanese relations. In recent years, controversies relating back to World War II have put considerable strain on Sino-Japanese cooperation. From controversies over the Japanese Prime Minister’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and Chinese demand for Japanese apologies, bitter memories of World War II continue to dominate the foreign policy of both countries. This recurrence of war-related problems hampers political and economic collaboration between Chinese and Japanese governments.
4 Caroline Rose, "The Textbook Issue: Domestic Sources of Japan's Foreign Policy," Japan Forum 11, no. 2 (1999).
Among war-related controversies, the issue of state-authorized Japanese history textbooks deserves close attention because the problem influences current and future bilateral relations. This conflict over the content of Japanese textbooks refers to the reinterpretation of World War II, which the Chinese government accuses the Japanese government of whitewashing Japan’s colonial history, notably that of the Japanese military aggression in China during 1931- 1945. Despite the Chinese demand for correction of controversial content in history textbooks, the Japanese government, dominated by the center-right party Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), appears reluctant to implement change. While diplomatic negotiations to improve Sino-Japanese relations have taken place, disagreement over historical interpretation continues to fuel the tensions between the two countries.
According to Caroline Rose, history remains at the core of the Sino-Japanese diplomacy since Japan’s military expansionism during 1894-1945 has left a deep scar in the memories of Chinese people.5 In attributing this historical period as the fifty years that overshadowed the previous two thousand years of cultural exchange, the author argues that the brutal Japanese occupation in China, particularly during 1931-1945 when the Japanese military committed a horrific series of atrocities, represents a strain on the Sino-Japanese relations.6 A series of atrocities committed by Japanese military in China include the contested Manchuria Incident of 1917 and the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. These international conflicts remain central to war memories of China and Japan, as they directly relate to Japan’s colonial legacy in Asia and
5 , Interpreting History in Sino-Japanese Relations : A Case Study in Political Decision-Making, Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies Series (London; New York: Routledge, 1998). P10.
China’s constant criticism of Japan for downplaying its wartime aggression and fostering blind patriotism among schoolchildren.7 I will further elaborate on this theme in the subsequent section, which discusses the nature of the textbook controversy.
The textbook controversy illustrates the crucial role that history plays in the delicate and complex relationship between China and Japan. While the controversy over Japan’s history textbook continues to fuel debates, the fundamental point lies in the battle for national identities.8 History education allows policymakers to construct a collective national identity that ensures the continuation of their system by instilling future citizens with certain social, cultural, and political values. History textbooks are used as a policy instrument to formulate a “correct” view of national history, thereby establishing a strong national identity and defining what it means to be Chinese or Japanese. Although history textbooks represent only one of many ways of shaping national identity because other popular media such as TV shows, manga (Japanese comic books), books, and films also play a large role, the case of history textbooks nonetheless illustrates the use of education to foster public loyalty to the existing institutions and value system. Consequently, the textbook controversy originates from conflicting war memories, which are a result of diverging official narratives of a nation’s past. Since national identities revolve around history, the textbook controversy not only shapes the political agenda of respective governments but also influences the survival of nationhood.
7 Tomoko Harnada, "Constructing a National Memory: A Comparative Analysis of Middle-School History Textbooks from Japan and the PRC," American Asian Review XXI, no. 4 (2003). Pill.
8 Hiroshi Mitani and Terayuki Hirota, Rekishi Kyokasho Mondai, Shohan. ed., Ridingusu Nihon No Kyoiku to Shakai (Tokyo: Nihon Tosho Senta, 2007). P248.