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At a recent conference funded by the Toshiba Foundation on the media’s role in representing the shared wartime past in East Asia, scholars and journalists gathered at Cambridge University to assess the current state of play.

In general, the gathered academics understood the demands of the media, appreciating the need for brevity and timely responses. There was a funny moment, however, when one scholar suggested a way to improve journalistic coverage of controversial historical issues. In his view, reporters need to develop more systematic and rigorous conceptual frameworks as a means of contextualizing ongoing battles over history! One reporter pointed out quite sensibly that there are tight deadlines and journalists are writing for tomorrow’s readers, suggesting that applying academic methods to news writing wasn’t practical.

There is an asymmetry in regional media autonomy from the state that has implications for how the past is reported. The Chinese media — traditional print, broadcasting and social — are beholden to the state, operate under very strict regulations and are subject to censorship. Over the past few decades, the Chinese government has embraced patriotic education as a means of bolstering a unifying national identity and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

As such, media representations of the shared wartime past have shifted dramatically in the post-Mao Zedong era. Under Mao, vilification focused on Japanese militarists, but overall the depredations of Japan’s invasion were downplayed. Back in 1972, when Japan normalized ties with China after a prolonged Cold War hiatus, Mao greeted Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka by thanking Japan for helping his communist forces win the civil war in 1949 against the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). A bemused Tanaka was apparently unaware that the KMT had done most of the fighting against Japan’s invading forces and suffered far greater losses, thus facilitating Mao’s triumph.

Subsequently, the CCP has found that the traumas of history can be useful in promoting national unity and reminding people that the party saved the nation from the marauding Japanese. It ended the 150 years of humiliation suffered at the hands of imperialist nations, including Japan, from the 19th century and has presided over an unprecedented modernization process since the 1980s that has greatly improved living standards. However, this has also unleashed the discontents that come with tremendous social upheaval and nurtured a middle class concerned about environmental degradation, corruption, nepotism, growing disparities, etc., that undermine the party’s legitimacy.

Japan has been a useful lightning rod for this potent brew of envy, anger and class conflict in a nation where the party prioritizes stability. Thus the government has imposed patriotic education on younger Chinese to remind them about the positive role of the party and to redirect anger toward Japan, an emphasis reinforced in numerous TV dramas, films, museums and national acts of commemoration.

Conference participants pointed out that exhuming and condemning Japan’s unsavory past is primarily directed at a domestic audience, nurturing a solidarity drawing on the shared trauma of an earlier generation that helps shore up the party’s contemporary bona fides. Problematically, though, hyping this trauma has generated an emotional and angry nationalism directed against Japan. As one historian commented, Japan is incorrectly deemed to be totally unrepentant and unapologetic about what it inflicted on the Chinese people despite numerous apologies. But, given that other prominent Japanese politicians or pundits always deny, downplay, justify or shift responsibility in ways that undermine such apologies, Japan continues to send a mixed message about its past misdeeds. Many in China and elsewhere around the region interpret this ambivalence as evidence of continued shirking of the burdens of that past, while in Japan, apology diplomacy is portrayed by the conservative mainstream as a fool’s errand since nobody is taking the proffered olive branch, conveniently overlooking the causes for this unresponsiveness.

Recently, the Chinese government announced that from now on students will be taught that the war with Japan commenced in 1931 when the latter invaded and occupied Manchuria, not from 1937, when the conflict escalated into a major conflagration. It seemed much ado about nothing, but the media got excited. Apparently, anything on the history-war front is newsworthy even when it doesn’t seem particularly so. Asked by a Hong Kong-based Chinese journalist about the likely reaction in Japan to this shift in the curriculum, I explained it would be divided between revisionists who always bemoan how China politicizes history and almost all Japanese historians, who bemoan revisionist political meddling in rewriting history.

In fact, the 1931-45 frame is one that Emperor Akihito has embraced. Connecting the intensification of the campaign in 1937 to the origins of war in 1931 makes it impossible for revisionists to plausibly argue that Japan was fighting a defensive war aimed at liberating Asians from the yoke of Western imperialism. The September 1931 invasion was unprovoked Japanese aggression aimed at subjugating part of China, not liberating anyone.

So why make such a change now? It doesn’t appear to be related to marking the 45th anniversary of normalizing Sino-Japanese relations. And I assume that Xi Jinping doesn’t take his cues on history from the Emperor.

One participant suggested that the new time frame is aimed at addressing the embarrassing absence of the communists from the existing Sino-Japanese war narrative (1937-45), bearing in mind that there was a small-scale communist insurgency in post-’31 Manchuria against the Japanese. This might be in preparation for the upcoming Party Congress, where Xi is expected to consolidate his power and boost his legacy. It also may be a gambit to invoke the international condemnation of Japan that ensued at the time, a key factor in Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933. This widening of the narrative thus places China’s resistance in the context of Japan’s international isolation.

While China’s censorship is obvious, a Japanese journalist explained that the government here punishes news outlets that fail to toe the official line by denying them access, while lobby groups pressure firms to withdraw ads from offending publications or broadcasters. As the history war heats up, this type of intimidation threatens the capacity of the media to fulfill the role that a vigorous liberal democracy requires of it.

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

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