Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Japan’s History Debate Reconsidered

Since Shinzo Abe replaced Junichiro Koizumi as Japan’s prime minister in September, the Japanese and Chinese governments have begun defusing the tension between them that has increased over the last five years.

Specifically, they are shelving the contentious debate over whether and how Japan should atone for its military invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s. But China and Japan are acting out of expediency without tackling the root cause of the tension.

The “history question” has existed for decades, and has been characterized by extended periods of calm followed by outbursts of anti-Japanese sentiment provoked by some incident that reminds the Chinese of Japan’s image during the war years.

While the emotions are often genuine, these outbursts are primarily a manifestation of the inside-out dynamics of China’s domestic politics, in which the history issue is utilized as a major instrument of factional struggles.

The Chinese do not have a deeply entrenched sense of national identity. Instead China is divided by competing regional, ethnic and class identities. The Japan history question is an issue on which all Chinese can reach consensus and on which a temporary and precarious sense of unity can be fabricated.

On the other hand, Japan provides China with capital, technology and an export outlet, and is essential for China’s continued economic growth and social development. Thus it is crucial for the ruling faction in Beijing to maintain good relations with Tokyo. But the faction that opposes the leadership and seeks to undermine it is tempted to exploit the Japan history question for internal political gain.

What about Japan? Over several decades, Japanese leaders have tried to manage China’s politicization of the history issue by offering economic assistance in the hope that this will defuse Chinese factional struggles. Japan also has sought occasionally to appease its neighbor by offering a series of official apologies for its wartime actions.

Koizumi abandoned this conciliatory approach. From 2001 to 2006, he made annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the collective spirit of Japan’s war dead. When China, South Korea and other countries objected, as Koizumi knew they would, he replied that he had made a solemn pledge to continue his visits (even though he had broken promises on other issues).

Koizumi is not known to be religious. So why did he continue to take actions that some observers argued hurt Japan’s interests?

His ultimate goal was to revitalize Japan’s sense of self. Japan’s identity as a global economic power had been diminished after the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, in parallel with China’s rise. In addition, as the United States, Japan’s only military ally, became seriously constrained by the quagmire in Iraq, it became imperative to dismantle the overly pacifist legal arrangements that force Japan’s security policy into a straitjacket.

By intensifying a sense of crisis among the Japanese people, Koizumi sought to prompt change; he took advantage of the latent history debate by repeatedly visiting Yasukuni in the context of a growing potential threat from China and an increasing North Korean threat.

Koizumi achieved unusually swift passage of extensive security-related legislation and dispatched Japan’s armed forces overseas to support the U.S. global war on terrorism. In so doing, he strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance, while keeping in step with America’s military transformation strategy. He was beginning to give Japan a new international role, a new state identity.

Koizumi’s approach is comparable to President Ronald Reagan’s style during his first term. After the Vietnam War and the Carter administration, the United States had lost its sense of direction and confidence as a world power. Reagan’s great achievement was to restore that. One way he did that was his sunny but stubborn personality. Another was his return to basic American values of patriotism and sacrifice. Another was creating a sense of crisis focused on the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.”

Although Shinzo Abe does not appear willing to follow this path, relations between China and Japan will remain susceptible to acute politicization of the history debate as long as Japan lacks full confidence in the U.S. security guarantee or in its own independent military power – and as long as China fails to achieve successful socioeconomic development and an authentic national identity.

Chinese politics also plays a crucial role. President Hu Jintao has recently emphasized the necessity of balancing economic growth with social development, while Jiang Zemin, China’s still-powerful former leader, has put top priority on growth. The dismissal of Chen Liangyu, a politburo member of the Chinese Communist Party and First Secretary of Shanghai’s Communist Party, indicates that Jiang’s faction is undergoing a major setback.

Author

M

Masahiro Matsumura

Professor of International Politics on the Faculty of Law and Political Science, St. Andrew’s University in Osaka

The consolidation of Hu’s power may ease the pressure of factional strife, helping to prevent politicization of Japan’s history question. But Chinese-Japanese relations will continue to be volatile as long as Chinese politics is dominated by factionalism without clear rules of leadership succession.

The United States can help create a stable and sustainable East Asian order by promoting an environment in which the history debate can be addressed sincerely. In such an environment, the Japanese could face their past and reach a national consensus on their war years, and the issue could be untangled from factional fighting among China’s leaders.

A more active American approach to the history question, including an awareness of its use in Chinese political battles, could not only help solve a root cause of tension between Japan and China, but could also prevent the U.S.-Japan alliance from derailing.

This opinion was originally published by the International Herald Tribune with the title “Let’s be honest about using history”. For more on this topic, please see “The Regional Dynamics of Japan’s History Debate: Epiphenomena, Substance, and Prospects“.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings