History lessons feed competing nationalisms

Flowers are placed against a wall with the names of Chinese soldiers killed during WWII at the Tengchong Graveyard of National Heroes in Yunnan province, China, on Aug 13 2015.
Flowers are placed against a wall with the names of Chinese soldiers killed during WWII at the Tengchong Graveyard of National Heroes in Yunnan province, China, on Aug 13 2015.PHOTO: EPA

When the Chinese Communist Party's Eighth Route Army marched into Wuxiang county in 1937, one of its commanders asked to see the textbooks at a village school.

Xiao Jianghe, then nine years old, remembers that the commander was not impressed with what he read. Now a tall, bone-thin 87-year-old with cataracts clouding his left eye, Mr Xiao recalls the officer's verdict: "He said: 'These are old books. You should read new books on the anti-Japanese resistance and sing songs about it.'"

The Eighth Route Army had rushed to Wuxiang, in northern Shanxi province, to harass an advancing Japanese unit that it would later defeat at the Battle of Pingxing Pass. That its commanders took time to examine Mr Xiao's school demonstrated the Communist Party's appreciation of the power of textbooks. Like victors elsewhere, the party has been writing its version of history - and expunging rival narratives - ever since.

Textbooks and patriotic memorials remain central to a new battle between competing nationalisms in Japan and the two countries that bore the brunt of its military expansion in the first half of the 20th century - China and Korea.

While many Japanese textbooks acknowledge the atrocities committed by the country's Imperial Army during the Second World War, they often do so only briefly or with key details buried in footnotes. For all their flaws, however, they are at least subject to a vigorous and continuing debate between right-wing nationalists and pacifists.

There is no such conversation in China, where the ruling Communist Party maintains a monopoly on history and its interpretation.

"Chinese authorities need the people to hate Japan," says Zhang Lifan, a dissident historian.

For its part, Korean nationalism is animated by a deep sense of victimisation, but also complicated by its continuing division into a communist North sustained by China and a capitalist South protected by the United States.

As a united entity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Korea was Asia's Poland, surrounded by much larger powers which treated it as a vassal state or even annexed it completely during different periods of its history.

These complex currents, and China's economic resurgence, have given rise to a sense that history in the region is now more alive - and dangerous - than it has been for years as rival nationalisms feed off each other in toxic ways.

The Senkaku, or Diaoyu islands as they are known in China, are controlled by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing, and represent the biggest potential flashpoint. When Tokyo's governor "nationalised" the Senkakus in 2012, buying them from a private owner, violent protests erupted across China.

A recent dispute in Japan over textbook revisions that would dilute references to its wartime past sparked alarm in Beijing and Seoul. Both capitals also routinely condemn visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni shrine.

"The textbook issue is one of the broader historical problems we have, which turns into politics," says Sohn Yeol, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "We have memories of Japanese oppression and so do the Chinese. But the Japanese tend to glorify that (as their) modernisation period. The three countries have different interpretations of a single history."

Japan's younger generation, which understandably feels it should not be browbeaten for the sins of its great-grandfathers, is steadily becoming more nationalist. A similar upsurge of patriotism among young Chinese suggests that Asia's two largest powers are locked on a trajectory that could lead to conflict.

But there is an important caveat to such predictions: many in Japan still regard their country's postwar pacifism as a source of great pride. Their convictions were visible this summer during protests against Mr Abe's reinterpretation of the constitution to let Japan's Self Defence Forces fight on behalf of allies.

"Whatever future there is has to be built upon an honest coming to terms with the past," says Akira Iriye, a Japanese scholar and retired Harvard University professor.

In China, the Communist Party has long presented itself as the "tower of strength in the people's War of Resistance against Japanese aggression". According to its propaganda, the party's heroic role during the Second World War is an important source of legitimacy for its 66-year rule, alongside the renewed sense of economic and military "rejuvenation" under President Xi Jinping. But it is also a version of history that the party's critics believe has more to do, as the dissident historian Mr Zhang puts it, with Mr Xi's "current political needs".

The high point of China's Second World War commemorations will be a military parade through Beijing on Sept 3. It is the first time such a display, usually used to celebrate 10-year anniversaries of the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, will instead mark the end of the Second World War.

The parade comes on top of a torrent of patriotic movies, television mini-series, concerts and exhibitions across the country. At the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, an exhibit called "The Road to Rejuvenation" pulls no punches in its account of the country's "century of humiliation" - a period that stretches from Britain's victory over the Qing dynasty in the first opium war of 1839 to the Japanese invasion, with the 1937 Rape of Nanking presented as the worst single outrage. Beijing maintains that Japanese soldiers massacred some 300,000 people - and raped women and girls indiscriminately - in Nanking, known today as Nanjing.

"After Britain started the (first) Opium War, the imperial powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people," the exhibit begins.

"(Japanese accounts) are trying to, in some sense, minimise the impact on the reader," says Owen Miller, an expert on Korea at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "The Chinese approach is the opposite, trying to maximise the impact through graphic descriptions."

Despite its R-rated content, the "Road to Rejuvenation" is as popular with Chinese schoolchildren, teachers and parents as the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is in the US. The lessons the students draw from it, and their textbooks, are predictable.

"England I can forgive but not Japan," Wen Pengzhi, a 13-year-old student from Sichuan province, says after viewing the exhibition with his classmates. "Not only has Japan not apologised, it fabricates history . . . (but) we will continue to strive and will surpass them."

The museum attached to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine urges visitors to focus instead on the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, in which an Asian nation comprehensively defeated a European rival for the first time.

"Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War inspired other oppressed peoples, particularly Asian peoples, to dream of achieving independence," Yasukuni's final room declares. It frames Japan's years of empire as a quest to free Asia from Western imperialism. "Not until Japan won a stunning victory in the early stages of the Greater East Asia War did the idea of independence enter the realm of reality. Once the desire for independence had been kindled under Japanese occupation, it did not fade away even though Japan was ultimately defeated."

But this arc of history beloved of Japan's nationalists is not shared by their counterparts in China and South Korea, for whom the Second World War was indeed a war of liberation - from Japanese oppression. They prefer to trace Japan's emergence, as a menace rather than a saviour, back to the first Sino-Japanese war.

The South Korean and Chinese governments have also managed to rile Tokyo with memorials of their own to Ahn Jung-geun. In 1909, Ahn assassinated Japanese statesman Hirobumi Ito in Harbin, a city in north-eastern China.

Atop a rocky hill in central Seoul, a museum celebrating Ahn implies that the murder was justified because of an extensive list of Ito's alleged crimes. Among the outrages, Ito is accused of burning Korean textbooks.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'History lessons feed competing nationalisms'. Print Edition | Subscribe