Jeff Kingston: Renovating War Memory in Nanjing and Tokyo

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University (Japan Campus) and a Japan Focus associate. He wrote and photographed this article for Japan Focus. He is the author of “Burma’s Despair, Critical Asian Studies, 40:1 (March 2008), 3-43, several recent articles on East Timor and Japan’s Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2004).]

On a scorching July 7, 2008, officers of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces visited Nanjing for an artillery demonstration, a visit barely mentioned in the Chinese media even though it was the first time Japanese soldiers had returned to the scene of the crime since Japan surrendered in 1945. Unlike in recent years, there were no special commemoration rites on this anniversary of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident. This reflected the Chinese leadership’s decision to turn down the heat on history in the wake of President Hu Jintao’s spring 2008 visit to Japan and the subsequent inking of an agreement on gas field development in disputed maritime territory near the contested Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. [1]

Indeed, since Prime Minister Koizumi left office in 2005, the Chinese government has made improvement of bilateral ties a priority. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited Japan in April 2007 and made a conciliatory speech lavishing praise on Japan’s post-WWII peaceful development, expressing gratitude for Japan’s generous assistance to China and acknowledging Japan’s apologies for wartime aggression. Televising this speech in China indicates that the state is trying to calm widespread anti-Japanese animosity among the people. Leaders in both nations reckon that too much is at stake to hold the bilateral state relationship hostage to the past, but the political context in which war memory is contested remains fluid. Whether the Chinese leadership can insulate contemporary relations from popular anger over the shared past remains uncertain and depends on factors beyond its control.

In the recent past, survivors gathered at Nanjing’s Massacre Memorial (NMM) to bear witness to the suffering of victims, tapping into and elaborating on the narrative of national humiliation that is central to national identity in modern China, a nation that keenly recalls its bainian guochi, “one hundred years of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. [2] Now, as China celebrates its debut as a major power with the staging of the Olympics and as it works to repair relations with Japan, the state seeks to shift the national humiliation narrative to the backburner. Many people, however, remain vigilant supporters of this narrative, constraining the leadership’s diplomatic and reconciliation initiatives. Outbursts in 2004 at the Asia Cup soccer tournament hosted by China and on the streets of Shanghai in 2005 suggest that anti-Japanese sentiments are a potent factor keeping the state’s reconciliation initiatives on a short leash and subject to public scrutiny and criticism. Patriotic education in China focusing on Japan’s wartime misdeeds and the CCP’s crucial role in defeating the Japanese ensures that younger Chinese are aroused over this history. The combination of this patriotic education and the actions and words of Japan’s conservative elite convince many Chinese that Japan remains unrepentant and evasive about its war responsibility, thus limiting the ability of the state to maneuver and compromise over history.

In light of these contemporary concerns, noncommemoration of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 2008 is striking given that the exchange of shots in 1937 served as a pretext for Tokyo to launch the large-scale invasion that ignited the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45. Later that year, on December 13, 1937, Japanese troops entered Nanjing and unleashed a reign of terror, executing POWs and civilians, raping women by the thousands while burning and looting the city. The rampage extended over the next six weeks, leaving the once grand capital of China a shattered and smoldering husk. ...

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