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Factors That Affect the Historical Memories of China and Japan

Two of the readings in these two weeks (Buruma and Dirlik) help us to clarify what helped shape the historical memories of China and Japan, especially the latter, toward the Asian phase of World War II, in particular Japan's denial of its military aggression toward China and the Nanjing Massacre. 

1. Buruma: the Tokyo Trial and the factor of Taiwan

Ian Buruma, in his "The Nanking Massacre as a Historical Symbol," pointed out two major factors that influence the Japanese memory of their military past.  Like Conrad, he mentions the factor of the Tokyo War Trial which many Japanese held were unfair.  Precisely because the Nanking (Nanjing) massacre was featured prominently in the war trials (Buruma in Li, p.7), and for that the Japanese conduct in Nanjing was classified as a "crime against humanity," and put on the same scale as the Nazi Holocaust in Germany, Japan lost its right to rearm except for self-defense after the war.  That was why the right wing would not stop at denying the Nanjing massacre because of its relevance to Japanese rearmament. 

Buruma also points out the factor of Taiwan, where the Nationalists, nemesis to the Chinese Communists, established their government after they lost the civil war in 1949.  Japan's continued trade with Taiwan was a major reason why China protested vehemently against the Japanese textbook revisions of 1982, and the subsequent Chinese museum of the Nanjing Massacre in 1983.

2. Dirlik: memory of the past as definition of oneself in the present and the future

Arif Dirlik also tackles the issue of the 1982 controversy over Japanese textbook revisions, including changing the word "invasion" to "advance" when referring to Japanese troops in China.   Dirlik gives a more nuanced analysis of the event than Buruma: the Chinese government did not protest vehemently at first, and limited the protest against only a "handful" of Japanese militarists.  (Dirlik, Boundary 2, p.35) But as time went on, China's antagonism escalated: China  threatened to cancel the visit of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki in China, and did cancel the visit of Education Minister Heiji Ogawa.  Chinese fury was further fueled by the Japanese release of the Japanese film about World War II: The Great Japanese Empire, where Prime Minister (1941-44) Hideki Tojo, who approved of the bombardment of Pearl Harbor, was depicted as a hero loyal to emperor and nation. (Dirlik, pp.35-37)  The Chinese stopped the war against Japanese textbook revision in September 1983, so as not to jeopardize the visit of PM Suzuki. After all, it was in China's interest to develop their relationship with Japan so that they could borrow technology and management skills from the latter for development.  Similar Chinese protests also punctuated significant war anniversaries such as the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII (1985), when Japanese PM Nakasone visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where the Japanese war dead from WWII, including class A war criminals executed after the war, were enshrined.  There were, however, political factors foreshadowing the Chinese protests against the Japanese leader's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, including problems associated with China's economic reform, which would ultimately culminate in a massive Chinese student protests of 1989  that challenged the Chinese Communist regime. Just as the Chinese protests against the Japanese textbook revisions in 1982 were made for an unstated political reason: against the Japanese trade delegation's trip to Taipei, Taiwan, the stronghold of Chinese Communists' nemesis, the Nationalists, whom the Communists had driven off  mainland China in 1949.

Dirlik suggests that the inequality between the economic developments between the two countries, China and Japan, may have fueled the radical sentiments on the part of Chinese against Japanese textbook revision (Boundary 2, pp.48-49).  For China, rewriting history was a way to get even with the more powerful Japan, while for Japan, its newly acquired power and international status in the 1980s made it all the more anxious to shed its historical baggage and burden and gain greater international recognition. Therefore, "history is a problem to the extent that the legacy of the past serves as an obstacle to the establishment of a new identity consonant with Japan's current status in the world; and the attempts to revise history, viewed not just from an Asian but from a global perspective, represent part of an effort to assert such an identity. For the Chinese, in turn, history (as culture) represents a means of bringing symmetry to what Wang Jianwei has described as an "asymmetric" relationship." (Dirlik, Boundary 2, p.50) Either China or Japan's version of history represented the respective country's utopian vision of its past, instead of what the past was really like, and its vision for its present and future.

In recent years, Chinese economy has galloped. By 2006, a conservative estimate puts China as the fourth largest economy in the world, after the U.S., Japan, and Germany.  China has become the second largest trade partner with Japan, accounting for 11% of Japan's trade while the U.S. accounts for 17% of Japan's trade.  The economic inequality that Dirlik mentions certainly has been diminished.  Meanwhile, however, the rise of China has also led to a more active call for remilitarization on the part of Japan.  While certain groups in Japan have always called for the revision of the postwar Japanese constitution, especially Article 9, where Japan was only allowed a self-defense force, the rise of China and changing international relations may encourage the U.S. to, for the first time after World War II, side with Japan in amending the latter's constitution.  The result of that may build up new tension between China and Japan. It is interesting to note that while (at least some in) Japan regarded the rest of Asia as the "garbage heap" (Dirlik, Boundary 2, p.48) in the 1980s and, even though condescending to the rest of Asia, treated the latter as benign, Japan's increased trade with Asia after 1980 and the growing strength of China has led to (some) Japanese paranoia over the power of China and the fear of Chinese "revenge" against Japan. If textbook revision, or the memory of history, and the protest against it, is an expression of concerns for the status of one country and its relationship with other countries, the process (Japanese textbook revision, and Chinese protest) seems to be an ongoing one, and not likely to disappear in the near future. 

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