China’s Japan policy and the influence of historical memory

Major essay written for POLS5127: China and Asia-Pacific Security at the University of New South Wales, Semester 2 2015. Final mark: 79%

How has historical memory influenced China’s Japan policy? Discuss with reference to possible pathways to improve the bilateral relationship.


One would be hard-pressed to find a scholar or politician who did not agree that Sino-Japanese relations have reached their lowest point since the two countries restored formal diplomatic affairs in 1972 (Qiu 2006:25). After several decades of “economically hot but politically cold” relations (Cui 2012:201) – where economic and cultural relations between China and Japan experienced an extraordinary improvement – political and public perceptions of each other have drastically deteriorated since the turn of the 21st century. The April 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations that shocked Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities are perhaps one of the most identifiable symptoms of the souring relationship, the causes of which are rooted deeply in the Chinese peoples’ collective memories of the historical animosity between the two countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China website (MFA PRC) itself discusses the grave difficulties facing the bilateral relationship between China and Japan since 2013. Historical memory is the basis of the complex Sino-Japanese relations, exacerbating existing social, political and military tensions and colouring almost every aspect of the bilateral relationship. However, while there is a very real, long-suppressed anger on the side of China that was not properly reconciled, the influence of historical memory on China’s Japan policy is detrimental not only to the bilateral relationship but also to China itself. The rise of revisionist nationalism in Japan in the face of China’s increasing hostility further aggravates the situation. This paper addresses the current political and social tensions that exist between China and Japan; specifically, how Chinese nationalism has increased state demand for less peacemaking policies and attitudes towards Japan – even if it comes at the cost of undermining China’s national interests. The role of historical memory is then assessed, with specific attention to the Rape of Nanking as both a real hurt and a convenient tool for the state. Though there is no quick-fix to improve the bilateral relationship, possible pathways to improve it are discussed.

Contemporary Sino-Japanese tensions

In 1978—79, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping travelled to Japan to mark the ratification of the treaty by which diplomatic relations between Japan and China were restored. According to Kissinger, Deng’s strategy required more than normalisation; it required reconciliation, not just for the improvement of bilateral relations but also that Japan could aid China in isolating the USSR and Vietnam (2011:357). For this, Deng was willing to put an end to the half a century of suffering that China had endured at the hands of Japan. Kissinger writes that Deng conducted himself “exuberantly”:

[Deng declared] “My heart is full of joy,” and [hugged] his Japanese counterpart, a gesture for which his host could have found few precedents in his own society or, for that matter, in China’s. Deng made no attempt to hide China’s economic lag: “If you have an ugly face, it is no use pretending that you are handsome.” When asked to sign a visitors’ book, he wrote an unprecedented appreciation of Japanese accomplishments: “We learn from and pay respect to the Japanese people, who are great, diligent, brave and intelligent.” (Kissinger 2011:358).

On April 9, 2005, thousands of Chinese protestors threw rocks and eggs at the Japanese embassy in Beijing. The crowd chanted anti-Japanese slogans, and soon the protests spread to almost forty major cities in China. These demonstrations were the first nation-wide anti-Japanese protests since 1985, and according to Jin Qiu, probably “the largest mass demonstrations in China since June 1989” (2006:26). Chinese authorities were slow to curb the demonstrations that went on for three weeks, in accordance with the “usual pattern” of allowing the public to vent before imposing restrictions lest the bilateral relationship was damaged (Roy 2005:191). Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing rejected Japan’s call for an apology and financial compensation. In 2009, former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s proposal of an ‘East Asian community’ set China on alert, as Beijing suspected it as Japan striving to establish a Japanese-led order in Asia in order to contain the rising China (Zhao 2011:59). In December 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “blatantly paid homage” to the Yasukuni Shrine that commemorates those who have died in the service of Japan, which on the MFA PRC website is described as a shrine that “honours Class-A war criminals of the WWII” (2014), and “seriously hurt the feelings of people of all countries that once suffered from Japanese militarist aggression and colonial rule.” (MFA PRC 2014).

Compared to Deng’s 1978—79 visit to Japan, this appears quite the shocking turn-around in public opinion for both China and Japan. In only a few short decades, a relationship that is essential to both countries is in great strife and threatening to destabilise the Asia Pacific region. However, the current state of bilateral relations is not surprising; public opinion in China with regards to Japan have been on the decline since the turn of the 21st century when the “fourth generation” of Chinese leaders were coming into power (Cui 2012:200). In her article, Jin Qiu makes specific reference to the anti-Japanese riots during the 2004 Asian Cup Soccer Games, where Chinese spectators burned Japanese flags (2006:26). These anti-Japanese demonstrations were not without political cause; during the 2004 riots, the Chinese crowd carried slogans such as “Apologise to the People of Asia” and “Return the Diaoyu Islands to Us” (Qiu 2006:26). The 2005 demonstrations at the Japanese Embassy were in specific response to both the approval of a history textbook in Japan which minimised or revised Japan’s role and extent of atrocities during the Second World War, and in opposition to Japan’s campaign to win a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Sino-Japanese tensions are hindering China’s ability to play a positive role in the region, and Chinese leaders seem uncertain of what their position should be. Linda Jakobson of the Lowy Institute writes that “they do not want to unleash self-destructive nationalist forces, but at the same time they seek respect and want China to be treated as a major power” (Feb 2013:14); unfortunately they are unable to hit that balance in their dealings with Japan as a direct result of the historical memory influence on their foreign policies. Ji Xiping “cannot risk being perceived as a leader who allows China to be humiliated by foreigners, in particular Japan” (Jakobson 2013:5). The conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are but only another symptom of the true cause of the decaying relations. Exchanges between the two countries are “marred by disputes over history, territorial claims, trade and production, developmental paradigms, energy security and military security” (Choong 2014:39). Where China’s dealings with the global community have become more proactive than reactive, China’s Japan policy remains mired in an inability to reach an understanding of history in their bilateral relations. “Sixty years later,” wrote William Kirby in the Foreward of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (1997), “the ghosts of Nanking still haunt Chinese-Japanese relations. Well they might.”


Historical Memory

Joseph Yu-Shek Cheng in his article China’s Japan Policy (2011) does not attribute the sharp decline in Sino-Japanese relations to historical memory, but rather the rise of Japanese neo-nationalism since the mid-1990s and economic recovery; however, it is clear that the rise of Japanese neo-nationalism and remilitarisation induces “disturbing historical resonance” (Calder 2006:4) in the region; Japan’s nationalism in and of itself is not unsettling, but rather the historical weight and stigma it carries with it. Although the Second World War ended 70 years ago and Japanese expansionism in Asia belongs to the pre-20th century world, the history remains deeply embedded in the relations and interactions between China and Japan.

Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking (1997), wrote in the book’s introduction that she first learned of the Nanking as a little girl from her parents, who had survived through not only the War but through the revolutions that rocked China during the 20th century. Though they eventually settled into a peaceful American town, “they never forgot the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War, nor did they want me to forget. They particularly did not want me to forget the Rape of Nanking,” Chang wrote. Though neither of her parents were witnesses to the atrocities in Nanking, they passed the stories down – as did, no doubt, a majority of Chinese to their children. The entirety of the introduction to the book is an impassioned entry of grief and anger; frustration at the “persistent Japanese refusal to come to terms with its own past.” She draws the stark comparison to post-WWII Germany, where it is illegal for teachers to erase the Holocaust from their curriculum; “the Japanese for decades systematically purged references to the Nanking massacre from their textbooks.” (1997:12—13). The book itself focuses both on the Rape of Nanking, and the subsequent “cover-up”.

Nationalism in China is “deeply influenced by the way that collective memory is constructed and represented,” writes Shunji Cui (2012:202), an appropriate description of Chinese outrage at Japan’s historical revisionism and erasure. It is not specifically the wartime acts on their own that fans the flames of the Chinese people wanting less conciliatory policies towards Japan; rather, it is the way Japan interprets the history. Certainly the wartime crimes were horrific; China suffered greatly at the hands of Japan. The anger is very real, and has been suppressed for a great deal of time, which means it has not been appropriately reconciled between the two countries despite China’s attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to put the past to rest. The rise of the ‘victim narrative’ in China can give rise to exaggeration and overreactions to contemporary issues that have nothing to do with historical events – a mentality, Qiu writes, that “also prevails among the Chinese intellectuals and political elites.” (2006:32). This is true for most, if not all, states across the world – though especially true for China: national history endorsed by a state and a society often is the result of “mythologisation”. China is hardly the only country whose history is tightly controlled by its political regime; however, “in terms of the relationship between history and the nation, few countries have as long and as strong a tradition as China has. Composition of the official history has always been a convenient tool for the state to forge the comparatively recent historical innovation in the shape of antiquity.” (Qiu 2006:33—34). Though historical memory may be a tool of the government in shaping its peoples’ mentality, what Japan does not understand is that China is not simply playing the ‘victim card’; the historical issues run deep in Chinese society. Chinese opinion of the Japanese is heavily based on the 20th century conflicts – but more so, on Japan’s view of the war. The right-wing in Japan have been responsible for denying the wartime aggressions against China; and officials repeatedly visit the Yasukuni Shrine; history textbooks are revised and deny the Nanking Massacre, amongst others. “We have to say that all these actions attempting to reverse the case of history have greatly harmed and negatively aroused the feelings of the Chinese. Not only has this enraged the older generations who experienced the war, but it has also infuriated the young people in China.” (Zhibo 2002, in Qiu 2006:32).

The collective historical memory is deeply entrenched in influencing not only Chinese social attitudes, but China’s foreign policy towards Japan. China’s anger and negative attitudes towards Japan are not aimed at the Japanese for simply being Japanese, or for being descendants of the Japanese who committed wartime atrocities. Rather, China’s fears of Japanese remilitarisation and leadership is because they fear Japan has not, or refuses to, learn from the mistakes of the past; until Japan acts appropriately remorseful for the pain China endured, China refuses to appear weak in the international arena by putting a heavily socially-imbedded history to rest.


Possible pathways to improve the relationship

Should China do something to rectify the situation? Should Chinese lay the past to rest, accepting Japanese apologies for their wartime transgressions? Or is the burden of resolving the ‘history question’ on Japan? And what about the broader geopolitical situation? Should China try to improve relations with Japan to balance against American hegemony? Can China and Japan work together to create a new Asian regionalism? (Gries 2005:831).

There is no simple quick-fix for a situation that has been constantly deteriorating since the turn of the century. Although a resolution is vital for China’s national interests, it is complicated by the fact that China has become obsessed with demanding apologies and reparations from a Japan that has in the past apologised and made reparations (though from China’s perspective, insufficiently) while still finding it difficult to acknowledge its country’s role in the wars. Iris Chang, prior to her death in 2004, strongly advocated that Japan could “not move forward until it too admits not only to the world but to itself how improper were its actions of just half a century ago” (1997:13—14). One of her recommendations for how to improve the bilateral relationship – or indeed, for how the Japanese may truly make amends for the historical transgressions – was that “at a minimum” the Japanese government should issue an official apology to the victims, pay reparations to the Nanking victims, and most importantly educate future generations of Japanese citizens about the true facts. “These long-overdue steps are crucial for Japan if it expects to deserve the respect from the international community – and to achieve closure on a dark chapter that stained its history.” (Chang 1997:225). The Japanese, however, are continually frustrated by China’s refusal to acknowledge Japan’s repentance and its peaceful post-war development and support to China’s economy since 1972. “Japan wishes to shake off the sins of the past and to re-emerge as a confident, active economic and political actor,” Choong writes (2014:51). Tokyo displays “apology fatigue” – something which Iris Chang was particularly critical of.

The pathway to improving Sino-Japanese relations and resolving them in a healthy, constructive manner can only be met on a mutual basis. Calder concurs, and writes that the two countries must stabilise their bilateral policies and cultural networks (2006:7). In 2006, there had been no full-scale Sino-Japanese summits since 2001, and generational change was a “quiet yet devastating” corrosive factor (Calder 2006:7). It is common of scholars to suggest that China “ease up on the history question” (Gries 2005:839), but this is an unrealistic standard and places most, if not all, the responsibility of improving bilateral relations between the two countries on China. A more promising alternative could be the joint textbook commissions initiative, which could be effective in calming the tensions outlined above; not only would it, as Iris Chang advocated, educate new generations of Japanese as to their history, but it would give China the reassurances it needs to see that Japan is acknowledging and learning about the wartime crimes of the 20th century. Calder also recommends United States encouraging regional communication, though there is no telling if China would take this as yet another sign of American influence in the region through their ties with Japan. In order for Sino-Japanese bilateral relations to improve, both countries must make a genuine, mutual attempt to reconcile without the intervention of other, particularly Western, powers. Both China and Japan must recognise each other major states of appropriately equivalent “social and strategic standing to exercise influence, and that may be expected to coordinate and take the lead in regional affairs” (Goh 2011:7), including those that involve their bilateral relationship.



There is no shortage of literature on the troubled contemporary Sino-Japanese relations and how historical memory forms the basis of the bilateral relationship, exacerbating existing social, political and military tensions. Historical memory colours almost every aspect of Sino-Japanese relations. China, while undoubtedly influenced by state-dictated history, is not just playing the ‘victim card’; the pain and hurt felt from the 20th century wars and attacks remains a very pervasive and real pain, and Japan is exhausted from apologies that never seem to be good enough for China. There is no fast way to ‘cure’ the decaying bilateral relationship. Until both countries take responsibility as powerful actors in their own region and take serious steps to a mutual reconciliation, the bilateral relationship may only continue to deteriorate as a direct result of historical memory influencing China’s Japan policies.



Calder, K. (2005). ‘China and Japan’s Simmering Rivalry’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85(2), pp. 129—139.

Chang, I. (1997). The Rape of Nanking, Penguin Books, Australia.

Cheng, J. Y. (2011). ‘China’s Japan Policy: Seeking Stability and Improvement in Uncertainties’, China: An International Journal, Vol. 9(2), pp. 246—275.

Choong, W. (2014). ‘The historical context’, Adelphi Series, Vol. 54(455), pp. 19—58.

Cui, S. (2012). ‘Problems of Nationalism and Historical Memory in China’s Relations with Japan’, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 25(2), pp. 199—222.

Goh, E. (November 2011). ‘Japan, China, and the Great Power Bargain in East Asia’, EIA Fellows Program, Working Paper No. 32.

Gries, P. H. (2005). ‘China’s “New Thinking” on Japan’, The China Quarterly, Vol 184, pp. 831—850.

Jakobson, L. (February 2013). ‘China’s Foreign Policy Dilemma’, Analysis, the Lowy Institute for International Policy, pp. 1—22.

Kissinger, H. (2011). On China, Allen Lane Publishers, London.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, China and Japan, accessed 19 October 2015, <>

Qiu, J. (2006). ‘The Politics of History and Historical Memory in China-Japan Relations’. Journal of Chinese Political Science, Vol 11(1), pp. 25—53.

Roy, D. (2005). ‘The Sources and Limits of Sino-Japanese Tensions’, Survival, Vol. 47(2), pp. 191—214.

Zhao, S. (2011). ‘China’s Approaches toward Regional Cooperation in East Asia: motivations and calculations’, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 20(68), pp. 53—67.


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