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Sino-Japanese propaganda wars are heating up

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Japan’s largest hotel chain is attracting attention yet again over the CEO’s promotion of revisionist history. All Apa hotel rooms offer a bedside book written by CEO Toshio Motoya (under the pen name Seiji Fuji) that denies the Nanking Massacre ever happened.

Apa Group is no stranger to controversy. Back in 2008, Air Self-Defense Force Chief Toshio Tamogami won a writing contest sponsored by the chain with an essay in which he justified Japan’s invasion of China, a stand for which he was fired.

Chinese booking sites have apparently dropped Apa from their offerings. Using the hotel as a platform for promoting an exculpatory view of Japan’s wartime misdeeds looks like a bad business decision, and it also reinforces negative (and inaccurate) perceptions among Chinese about Japan’s collective amnesia regarding its war crimes. Apa does not represent the government’s official view, but in denying the Nanking Massacre, the firm is poisoning bilateral ties and making Japan appear churlish in the court of global public opinion.

China’s Foreign Ministry has protested, lamenting that “some forces in Japan are still reluctant to look squarely at history.” It urged “the Japanese side to … educate its people with the right historical perspective, and win the trust of its Asian neighbors.”

A Japanese revisionist group sent me an email objecting to China’s protest, claiming that “it is the height of hypocrisy that a one-party dictatorship, with tight media controls, tries to lecture a liberal democracy on the issue of history based on free-thinking discussion.”

At a recent conference in Britain on the media and history in East Asia, Andrew Levidis, research associate fellow at Cambridge University, concluded that “in East Asia, history has become a weapon in diplomacy.”

Rana Mitter, an Oxford University historian specializing in China, thinks both sides have a lot to answer for. Both have instrumentalized history to vilify the other and assert a sanctimonious nationalism that impedes reconciliation. In his view, “Japan’s authorities were unwise not to be more generous about a settlement for Taiwanese ‘comfort women’ immediately after the conclusion of a deal with the South Koreans in late 2015.” But, he adds, Beijing has also erred by simplifying history in such a way as to shape it into a cudgel. “Two years earlier, China made overly ambitious claims about the 1943 Cairo Conference, suggesting that the communique from this long-forgotten event during World War II unequivocally backed up Chinese territorial claims,” says Mitter. “It would have been much more productive to acknowledge the nuances in the history of that period and pledge to explore them openly.”

Cambridge University historian Barak Kushner argues that “the most counterproductive propaganda effort on the Chinese side is probably the constant push to say to the Japanese that they need to ‘reflect on history like a mirror’ because now revisionist Japanese are pushing back in a comparative manner and saying that if you Chinese want to reflect so much on the war, you also need to think about the destruction that Mao caused.” In Kushner’s view, China’s more assertive stand on wartime history is counterproductive because it is entrenching a more hostile attitude among Japanese.

He notes that Beijing’s blunders are matched by Tokyo, because “no matter how many times a Japanese PM officially apologizes … there is a long list from the 1980s of individual ministers then saying stupid things and/or refuting the Nanjing Massacre.” This “has led to the idea throughout East Asia that Japan feels no culpability.”

“The Japanese government need not concern itself with the numbers massacred in Nanjing,” he says, as “20,000 or 300,000 is still a massacre.” Alas, such sensible advice goes unheeded in Tokyo, where the government has lambasted UNESCO for accepting China’s dossier on Nanjing for the Memory of the World Register.

According to a Japanese journalist at the Cambridge conference, the government’s rebuttal to UNESCO was actually written by Myojo University’s Shiro Takahashi, a member of the reactionary lobby group Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi) and officer of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform. So, it would seem the government is relying on right-wing groups to conduct its propaganda campaign.

In their excellent new book “Sino-Japanese Power Politics” (Palgrave), Giulio Pugliese, a professor at King’s College London, and Aurelio Insisa weigh in on the propaganda skirmishing that has intensified since Japan nationalized the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2012. They draw attention to the “battle for shaping the global narrative on Chinese and Japanese behavior,” one that sacrifices history on the altar of nationalism.

“China is losing the propaganda wars against Japan for one simple reason: China’s rhetorical insistence on its peaceful rise suffers from a credibility problem,” Pugliese told me. “In particular, China’s decision to go ‘all in’ in the South China Sea around late 2014 aided Japan’s strategic narrative of a coercive China that acts in defiance of international law.”

But in his book, Pugliese also points out that the global media is generally better disposed to Japan, giving it a tremendous advantage. I think that the Japanese government risks losing this edge to the extent that it engages in punitive tactics such as orchestrating the ouster of critical news anchors and embarks on campaigns targeting media groups who expose the charlatans of revisionism.

A lavish new $500 million public diplomacy budget is helping sway global opinion — partly squandered on dreary CNN infomercials — but in my view Japan is not winning the soft power battle through propaganda. Rather, it outshines China through far more generous no-strings-attached funding for scholarly research that respects academic freedom. As an open society allowing unfettered access unimaginable in China, Japan appeals to opinion-makers. Japanese foundations are not keen on funding research critical of the government and society, even though they burnish the nation’s image internationally when they do so.

While China’s assertiveness aids Japan’s narrative, Pugliese asserts that “Abe’s Japan has suffered from a credibility problem on the so-called history issue, Japan’s imperial legacy in East Asia.” In his view, “Japan’s suspension of its 2016 UNESCO funding over inclusion of the Nanjing Massacre in the Memory of the World Register was a clear example of counterproductive Japanese propaganda efforts. After all, the government of Japan doesn’t dispute that indiscriminate killing took place in Nanjing in 1937.”

Problematically, “Abe’s decision to retaliate against UNESCO hinted otherwise and played into China’s narrative of an unrepentant Japan,” Pugliese says. In his view, Japan has not yet tapped the possibilities of concerted efforts at historical reconciliation that would boost its international credibility. Any such initiatives await Abe’s exit.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan, and the editor of “Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan” (2017).