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For most Americans, World War II began Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Europeans date the beginning of the war to the 1939 invasion of Poland. Few Westerners appreciate the length and savagery of the Sino-Japanese war that was already in full force even by then.

More than a half century after its conclusion, that war and its aftermath continue to define relations between China and Japan. The conflict claimed an estimated 20 million lives, bringing out the very worst in soldiers and leaders in both countries. Periodically, leftovers from the war are discovered, such as the poison gas shells uncovered in China last year that killed one and sickened dozens of others. Japanese courts are still hearing cases regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and forced labor.

Yet despite the centrality of the Sino-Japanese War to contemporary Asia, there is still no agreement on what transpired during those eight years, its meaning and why it happened.

To remedy that situation, some two dozen scholars from China, Japan and the West met earlier this month to discuss the military history of the Sino-Japanese War. The project is the brainchild of Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel. The project was born in 2000; two years later the first meeting, a conference on civilian life during the war, convened. Last week’s conference was the second; two more meetings, one on culture and the other on diplomatic relations, are anticipated.

Understanding the war isn’t just an intellectual exercise. Some of Japan’s biggest disputes with its neighbors in recent years have been generated by controversies over history. Japanese politicians’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine — where the country’s war dead are memorialized — are the most obvious manifestation of the festering sore. There are hopes that finding common ground on these issues could provide a foundation for a wider ranging reconciliation.

Vogel explained, “We want to bring together Chinese, Japanese and Western scholars to see if they could agree on what actually happened during the war. Hopefully, they can contribute to resolving the history issue. Scholars can’t solve political problems, but they can provide a basic message to politicians who want to promote reconciliation and solve these problems.”

The exercise isn’t unprecedented. The Asia Foundation has sponsored studies of German-Polish reconciliation through those countries’ attempt to craft a joint history textbook. My organization has been working with the Asia Foundation and the Mansfield Foundation to bring together young opinion leaders from China, Korea and Japan to help better ties between Japan and its neighbors. These efforts invariably are greeted with curiosity — and skepticism — about the motives behind U.S. involvement.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for such exercises — at least in my lifetime. Last week’s meeting provided some grounds for hope. It was very civil: no raised voices, no nasty swipes. Bitter topics such as the atrocities in Nanjing or the use of chemical weapons by Imperial Japanese troops were notable by their absence. Taiwanese and mainland scholars treated each other with courtesy and respect. (That might not be asking for much, but at many recent conferences, Chinese participants have protested when Taiwanese were even present.)

But there was a critical divergence. For the Chinese participants, the starting point for each discussion was an indisputable fact: The Sino-Japanese war was a war of aggression. In other words, there was a moral dimension to the study that had to be established before any factual components could be discussed. One Japanese participant expressed frustration with the need to reiterate that point — “to begin each comment with a political position.”

The Japanese historian wasn’t a revisionist: He agreed that the war was a war of aggression. But in the next breath he complained that he wasn’t responsible for events that occurred over a half century ago. More worrisome was his observation that many Japanese felt the same way — and that China’s continuing emphasis on the moral issue was alienating people who were sympathetic to the Chinese position. They are beginning to wonder what the real point is. Is China trying to permanently claim the moral high ground? If so, why?

Some of the Western historians expressed similar frustrations. For them, attempts to frame the war in moral terms obscure important historical lessons. For example, despite the extraordinarily high number of casualties, the Sino-Japanese war had little impact on the outcome of the war in the Pacific. The critical determinant in the allied victory over Japan was a shortage of ships: Even if 1 million Imperial soldiers hadn’t been tied down on the Chinese mainland, they could not have stopped the allied march toward the Japanese archipelago. The Sino-Japanese war was a life or death struggle for the Chinese nation, but it is considered by most historians to be a “peripheral theater” during World War II.

Those Western historians also focused on adaptability. For them, a critical issue was the Japanese military’s seeming inability to alter its plans and procedures as circumstances changed, its assumptions were challenged and its tactics failed. Few answers were provided during our meeting. Explaining that institutional inflexibility may help understand even more recent phenomenon, such as the Japanese bureaucracy’s inability to come to grips with its failure to turn the country around in the last decade.

Chinese historians were also disinclined to debate Chiang Kai-shek’s thinking during the war. Historians have asked whether the generalissimo put a higher priority on fighting the Communists or the Japanese, and how that affected his conduct during the war.

For the Chinese, such mistaken priorities are impossible: They insisted that whatever the internal divisions, all Chinese would come together for the sake of the nation in times of crisis. As a result, the Chinese seemed quicker to defend Chiang than did the Taiwanese. While the nationalist instinct is understandable, it’s also an obstacle to an objective and accurate portrait of the war.

The “fog of war” makes that sort of understanding difficult enough. The fog of politics might make the task impossible.

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