Shin Kawashima recalls his heart sinking with the reelection of Shinzo Abe. A specialist in Asian diplomatic history at the University of Tokyo, Kawashima has spent years trying to narrow the gap between Japan and China’s strikingly different interpretations of wartime history. The election could undo much of this work, he fears. “If we think about what could happen over the next few years,” he says, “it’s frightening.”

Half of Abe’s 19-member Cabinet belong to a parliamentary association for “reflecting” on history education, or revisionists who deny Japan’s worst crimes from World War II. Education minister Hakubun Shimomura has said he wants to revoke not just the landmark 1995 Murayama Statement, expressing remorse to Asia for Japan’s wartime atrocities, but even the verdicts of the U.S.-led 1946-48 Tokyo war crimes trials.

In January, Abe revived a panel on education reform many historians predict will put his revisionist theories into practice. One of the panel’s declared aims is to demand rewrites of high school history textbooks, removing “disputed” facts. It also wants to eliminate the so-called neighboring-country clause, which gives “consideration” to Chinese and Korean sentiments about the war.

“From an academic point of view, the panel’s proposals are simply political interference,” says Kawashima, who is part of a joint, government-led history research project with Chinese historians.

Professors have often been drawn into such arguments. Academic conferences across Europe have wrestled for years over interpretations of World War II, and how to shape the historical memory of children. But the Asian conflicts seem rawer and more dangerous than most because they are driven by competing nationalisms in the world’s most dynamic economic region, led by fast-rising China and South Korea, and aging, declining Japan.

In a bid to head off diplomatic flare-ups that have threatened to spiral out of control, the three countries have agreed, often reluctantly, to build academic bridges. In 2002, Japan and South Korea created a panel of historians to exchange sources and information. The project is ongoing, despite a suspension from 2005 to 2007 after Japan refused to use any of the research in its high school textbooks. In 2006, a wave of anti-Japanese protests in China pushed Tokyo to set up a joint academic commission on historical issues.

Ironically, says Bu Ping, who led the Chinese side of the commission, Abe was prime minister at the time. “He seems to have done a complete reversal on the need for reconciliation,” says Ping, director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Faced with a meltdown of Sino-Japanese relations, Abe had little choice, many analysts say. “Organizing the commission was the easy part,” points out Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “They just agreed to meet together and talk. Now it is a little tougher.”

On paper at least, the impact of these joint efforts appears limited. A report published by China and Japan in 2011 admits the professors abandoned attempts to “come up with a unified interpretation for every incident,” let alone a joint textbook. Although the tone of Japanese history textbooks is resoundingly antiwar, they still contain little detailed references to the most bitterly disputed events, notably the rounding up of an estimated 200,000 mainly Korean sex slaves for use in army brothels, or the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese soldiers slaughtered civilians in the temporary Chinese capital.

Chinese textbooks, in contrast, depict these events in graphic detail and are still, in Kawashima’s words, less factual accounts of what occurred in the war than deeply patriotic “narratives.” Little effort is made to explain the most profound postwar changes in Japan, notably the creation of its antiwar Constitution and its deep-seated pacifism. South Korean textbooks focus on the nation’s suffering at the hands of the Japanese colonizers, making no mention at all of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed more than 200,000 people — including thousands of Japan-based Koreans.

Conservative historians in Japan have long opposed these projects for contributing to what the government calls “self-torturing views of history.”

Even mainstream scholars accept the difficulties. “It’s relatively easy for Korea, China and Japan to have similar interpretations of the Middle Ages,” says Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “When it comes to the 20th century, however, we just can’t have a consensus.”

But Sneider, who has written extensively on the textbook controversy, says the projects have been valuable. “They created relationships among historians on all three sides. That network is important.”

Ping agrees. “Chinese scholars used to have limited knowledge about Japan and these textbooks and there were a lot of misconceptions,” he says. “Many thought the Japanese hadn’t changed since the war. I think more now understand that Japan is a complicated place and that not everyone is right wing.”

Kawashima believes that years of academic exchanges and debate have also had one other important impact: Historians concur on most of the fundamental facts. One outcome of the Abe proposals could be to destroy this hard-won middle ground by allowing outliers, known in Japan as maboroshii-ha (illusion school) a bigger say in the debate, he fears. “There are thousands of historians in Japan and most agree that there was a Nanjing Massacre, but a handful don’t. If they’re allowed to say, ‘These facts have not been established,’ the process will completely stall,” he says.

These tensions are likely to sharpen this year now that Abe’s government has control over both houses of Parliament and more power to push his reforms. Seoul and Beijing have already voiced their worries. South Korea’s new ambassador to Japan, Lee Byung-ki, has said he wants to expand academic ties and extend the joint history project as a way to fight Abe’s influence.

Whatever happens in the political world, Ping says, serious historians must persevere. “Germany and France have been struggling with these issues for decades,” he says. “We’ve had a few years.”

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