The so-called history war — in which nations contested over their perception of wartime history as we marked the 70th year since the end of World War II — appears to have finally subsided for now. In terms of Sino-Japanese relations, we can refer to the recent statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Aug. 14), remarks by Emperor Akihito (Aug. 15), and the memorial address by Chinese President Xi Jinping (Sept. 3).

In his address, Xi proclaimed that “70 years ago today, the Chinese people, having fought tenaciously for 14 years, won the great victory of their War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.” Xi also emphasized that within the greater worldwide conflict “the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression started the earliest and lasted the longest.” By stressing that China was the first among the Allied powers in World War II to become embroiled in conflict and fought the longest, Xi took a clear stance demanding a revision to more conventional historical accounts that have marginalized China’s role in the war.

This passage from Xi’s address is similar in tone to the speech made before the U.S. Congress by Soong May-ling — better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek — in February 1943 at the very height of the Pacific War. Like Xi, Soong stressed that China, unaided, had been the first to take up the fight against Japanese aggression. Whereas she described the length of China’s war against Japanese aggression as “five and a half years” in her address, Xi described the same conflict as 14 years in duration. It seems likely that in expanding the timeline of the conflict, Xi made shrewd use of the appeal by Emperor Akihito in his 2015 “New year thoughts” regarding the importance of “taking this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931.”

However, Xi’s address did not touch upon the efforts at reconciliation made by Japan and China following the normalization of their relations in 1972. In all likelihood the Chinese Communist Party still finds it politically necessary to cast Japan as China’s hypothetical enemy in order to govern a country in which the era of rapid economic growth has ended and the corruption of power elites is rampant. Striking a conciliatory stance toward Japan might generate a backlash from China’s “patriots,” making it strategically imprudent.

A senior Japanese government official told me that “even a single positive reference to reconciliation efforts with Japan by Xi in his address would have been enough to enable Abe to visit China. We conveyed as much to the Chinese government, but received no reply.”

When the Chinese government extended a warm welcome to National Security Council Chairman Shotaro Yachi during his July visit, Beijing may have been hoping for a visit from Abe himself. In the end, China’s leadership may have been unable to decide on a historical interpretation of Japan and China’s postwar path to reconciliation.

Thus, for Japan and China the “postwar” period is still not over. The “history war” between Japan and China will continue as long as the two countries are unable to resolve the gap in their interests in international political terms and address the contradictions between their national interests and strategies. Japan and China also need to build a popular consensus around an understanding of history that both sides can agree on and is supported in domestic political terms.

“Japan will firmly uphold basic values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights as unyielding values and, by working hand in hand with countries that share such values, hoist the flag of ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace,’ and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world more than ever before.” These final words from Abe’s Aug. 14 statement must have created discomfort in China. China is not among the “countries that share such values” with Japan. Indeed, Japan’s proclaimed “proactive contribution to peace” is an offensive move in the eyes of China.

On the other hand, Xi’s Sept. 3 speech included a call to “build a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation and advance the noble cause of global peace and development.” This passage, in turn, must have prompted some unease within the Japanese government. Xi’s reference to a “new type of international relations” certainly included the potential for a “new type of great powers relationship” i.e., a “G-2” framework of China and the United States.

While the U.S. has shown little interest in accepting China’s persistent invitations to establish such a relationship, the Chinese have not given up. Nor has China changed its goal of subordinating the U.S.-Japan alliance to this “new type of great powers relationship.” In this case, China’s reference to a “new type of international relations” was a counter response to Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace.”

Meanwhile, when making his August statement, Abe must have been keenly aware of the Emperor. Emperor Akihito supports the Constitution and opposes its amendment, and it is an open secret that he views with alarm the interpretation of history that Abe — who once called for Japan to “break free from the postwar regime” — shares with other conservatives.

Emperor Akihito made his sentiments clearer than ever at this year’s Aug. 15 ceremony to remember the nation’s war dead. There he noted that Japan’s postwar pacifism should never be made light of, because Japan’s postwar path is a sacred history sustained by the Japanese people’s yearning for continuation of peace.

The understanding of history informing Abe’s statement managed — just barely — to adhere to the framework of the 1995 statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and the position of the Emperor. It is my hope that the framework would be established as a national consensus. That way Japan should finally be able to obtain a firm foothold in its “history war” with China.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.