Japanese and Chinese academics on Jan. 31 released a 549-page report on their joint studies of ancient, medieval and modern history involving both countries. Release of the report, originally scheduled in 2008, was delayed because of political considerations on China’s part. In addition, the postwar section of the report was not disclosed, at the request of the Chinese side.

China appears to fear, among other things, that the section on the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square could incite a strong reaction among its people. Still, it is significant that the joint studies were carried out and that the report was finally released.

Historical issues have caused an emotional rift between Japan and China. Violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in April 2005 prompted then Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura to propose the joint studies project to China. In an October 2006 summit, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to start the project to help warm bilateral ties that had chilled over the repeated visits by Mr. Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead.

Although the report was to be released in August 2008, the Chinese side called for postponement, saying the timing of the release should be determined from the viewpoint of minimizing negative effects on bilateral ties. In 2008, issues such as toxic Chinese-made “gyoza” dumplings imported into Japan and the joint gas development project in the East China Sea were smoldering. It also appeared that China was concerned about the possible effects of releasing the report before or during the Beijing Olympics in the summer of 2008 or ahead of the 60th anniversary in 2009 of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.

China evidently wanted to avoid any domestic trouble over the report, which consists of papers separately written by Japanese and Chinese academics. Chinese people may judge some views by Chinese academics to be concessions to the Japanese side, or find fault with views expressed by Japanese academics. The delay of the report’s release shows that history-related issues between Japan and China remain sensitive.

In the report, both the Japanese and Chinese sides characterized Japan’s war in China from 1937 to 1945 as one of Japanese aggression. Two Japanese academics said the war “left a deep scar on China, which became a battleground, and we have to say that most of the causes were created by the Japanese side.” The Japanese side opined that Japan did not have a premeditated, detailed grand design for its war against China. A Chinese academic called the war an “all-out war of aggression by Japanese militarism” and stressed that “people resisted and that anti-Japanese forces led by Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party hit back,” bringing about the “Chinese people’s great victory in their anti-Japanese war.”

As for the Nanjing Massacre from mid-December 1937 to early 1938, a Chinese academic cited two rulings, one by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the other by the 1947 Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal. The first ruling said Japanese forces, over the six week-period that they occupied Nanjing, “massacred” more than 200,000 noncombatants and prisoners of war in the city and its suburbs. The second ruling put the number of victims at more than 300,000. The academic added that the Japanese forces opened “comfort stations” and forced many Chinese women to serve as “sex slaves.”

Two Japanese academics affirmed that “collective and individual massacre incidents by the Japanese forces occurred.” They noted that Japanese studies’ estimates of the number of victims varied — 20,000, 40,000 and as many as 200,000. They said the numbers differ because of variation in such factors as the definition of “massacre,” the land area and period of time covered, and burial records.

Both sides’ views of the relationship between China and the former Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa Prefecture, may have been overshadowed by the territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku islets, which are part of Okinawa Prefecture, and the dispute over the boundary of the exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea.

A Japanese academic said the Ryukyu Kingdom was subordinate to both the Qing Dynasty and to Japan, and that Japan’s incorporation of the kingdom was beneficial for the Okinawan people. Two Chinese academics said the Ryukyu Kingdom had been a tributary to China and that the Ryukyu kings’ rule over the islands had been legitimized by China. They said Japan stole the Ryukyus from China.

Although both sides agreed to launch a second round of joint studies, it will be difficult to reach a common understanding. The important thing, though, is that each side understand the other’s views and perceptions. Only some Chinese media have reported on the joint studies. Both Japan and China should take steps to encourage their people to read the report.

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