Japan-China history report to break new ground

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo News

BEIJING — Historians from Japan and China are planning to release a report later this month on the outcome of a three-year joint history research project, including what could be a significant meeting of minds on the fighting in China between 1937 and 1945.

Still, gaps in perception of some events, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, will prevent the two sides from releasing any research on postwar history.

But the results of the joint studies that concluded in late December in ancient, medieval and modern history will be made available in the report. It contains 26 papers, half of them written by Japanese researchers and the other half by Chinese scholars.

The Chinese side says the panel has produced an “important outcome” because the two sides shared the recognition that what is sometimes referred to as the Second Sino-Japanese War was “a war of aggression waged by Japan.”

“The Sino-Japanese war is the main reason for the existence of the so-called ‘history issue’ between China and Japan,” said Bu Ping, director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and leader of the Chinese research team.

“Through discussions, we were able to gain a common recognition, and the issue of who bears responsibility for the war has become clear,” Bu said in a recent interview. “This is an important outcome.”

With consensus on such a basic issue as the aggressive nature of the war, other individual cases will continue to be open to academic discussion, he said.

Despite a decision not to release their studies on postwar history, the two sides have agreed that China should give fair credit to Japan’s postwar path as a peaceful nation and Tokyo’s provision of official development assistance to Beijing to help its economic growth, according to Bu.

He said the Japanese and Chinese scholars agreed that mass killings occurred during the Nanjing Massacre from December 1937 to January 1938. But they remained at odds over the number of Chinese killed by the Imperial Japanese Army after it seized Nanjing.

The number of deaths has been subject to debate, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to more than 300,000.

Bu said it is natural that historians cite data from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal. The former says the number of victims totaled more than 200,000 while the latter says the number was more than 300,000.

But at the same time, Bu said, such numbers need to be examined empirically, responding to a comment in late December by Shinichi Kitaoka, a University of Tokyo professor and head of the Japanese research team, that he sees the need to question the credibility of the trial records.

“What is important is that scholars from China and Japan respect their ‘different ways of thinking,’ ” Bu said. “It is a healthy sign that differences exist at the academic level” in the interpretation of history.

Underlining Bu’s comments, the 26 papers in the report do not necessarily contain views the two sides agreed on, but rather differing views in parallel.

Calling the three-year project a “first phase,” the panel is considering launching a second phase of joint history studies under a new framework.

In a political context, a senior Japanese diplomat said the panel has made it unnecessary for the two governments to debate the so-called recognition of history, which has often soured bilateral ties.

One such case was Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine during his April 2001-September 2006 stint.

“I think that (the history panel) was a smart mechanism” in terms of managing bilateral relations in a smoother fashion, the diplomat said, requesting anonymity.

Asked if the first phase of the studies will lead to the creation of a history textbook to be shared by Japan, China and South Korea, Bu said: “We welcome such calls, but it is too early to launch such an initiative now. We should focus on deepening exchanges in academic circles.”

The joint research project began in late 2006 based on an agreement between Shinzo Abe, Koizumi’s successor, and President Hu Jintao and was meant to conclude by the end of 2008. The panel postponed the release of its findings several times at China’s request.