Among China’s enemies, Japan occupies a special place as a brutal territorial aggressor. China complains constantly, and unfairly, that Japan has failed to apologize for its war crimes; the visits of successive Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine, with its unrepentant imperialist message, infuriates Beijing every year.
Both sides distort history. Japan’s notorious school textbooks are vague on war crimes; Chinese accounts of Japanese atrocities in films and school history books spare no gruesome detail. Japan as the source of inspiration and finance for a generation of Chinese political reformers, including Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), China’s democratic revolutionary leader, is all but forgotten. Both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party claim to have defeated Japan in the war of resistance; the larger theater of World War II, the role of the US and the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki take a back seat.
Both governments have stoked nationalism for domestic purposes. Now they risk being held hostage to the indignation of the street. As Asia’s geostrategic map shifts, such incidents, demonstrations and provocations will recur, stimulated by false histories and present ambitions. These are dangerous games and both governments should ensure that more sober stories prevail. These maritime disputes are a test of Asia’s capacity to cooperate for mutual benefit. Failure means everybody loses.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of www.chinadialogue.net