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Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Weight of History

Since Japan's invasion of northern China in 1931, in which it ignored League of Nations directives and illegally annexed the province of Manchuria, the Chinese attitude to Japan has often been one of intense suspicion. Although after the founding of the PRC Sino-Japanese relations improved significantly (the latter's military capabilities were severely reduced after World War Two), China has never been able to let go of its suspicions of Japanese intentions in Asia. And it is right to remain wary. Japanese written accounts of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) downplay the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1937 Nanking Massacre, and in recent years Japanese government ministers have caused controversy by visiting the Yasakuni Shrine- a memorial to the nation's war victims that includes known war criminals.

With this background in mind, the last week has been of importance to Japan's relationship with China, and indeed with other Asian nations. With last Sunday being the 65th anniversary of Japan's unconditional surrender, Japanese government ministers were involved in memorial ceremonies to the 3 million Japanese who died in the Second World War. However, as was noted approvingly in Chinese state media, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet refrained from visiting the Yasakuni Shrine, and the government also issued an apology to Asia's nations for the country's past aggression.

This does not mean that all has been forgiven.  Friday saw the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) issue a call for Japan to apologise for its past crimes against the Korean people, particularly the 1910 Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty. There is also an outstanding discussion over whether Japan should pay further financial reparations for its past aggression in Asia, a debate that rages within Japan as well as within the wider Asian community.

For China, finding a narrative of the history of the first half of the 20th century that is both representative of the crimes committed by Japanese forces and that is accepted by both sides is still a primary concern. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is currently involved in a research project with Japanese scholars to complete a joint account of Sino-Japanese history, in the hope of strengthening bilateral ties. However, CASS academics suggested at the completion of the first phase of research in February 2010 that there remains a tendency amongst some parts of Japanese society to deny Japan's aggressive role in World War Two. Although the project is a major step towards both sides finding common ground on such a complicated issue, it seems unlikely that Japan's past actions will cease to be a point of diplomatic friction any time soon. While the CCP continues to use China's astonishing transformation from 'the sick man of Asia' to economic giant to bolster its own image, history will stay high on the diplomatic agenda.

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