Ultimately, history is written by the historians

Though it’s getting almost no coverage here in the United States, there’s an interesting and troubling dispute occurring between China and Japan over events from World War II. For the last few days, protesters in China have been staging marches and pelting the Japanese Embassy in Beijing with bottles and rocks, protesting a new Japanese history textbook that significantly downplays Japanese wartime atrocities during World War II. Predictably, the Japanese deny it and accuse the Chinese government of orchestrating the protests.


What’s interesting is that this is such a wonderful example of the unexpected power that historians have in defining the cultural values of a society and of redefining history itself. There’s a cliché that observes that the history of war is written by the victor, but this situation goes beyond that, because, of course, the Japanese were not victorious in World War II.
The BBC report explains that:

“The protests were sparked by new Japanese schoolbooks, which many Chinese say whitewash Japan’s occupation of much of China during the 1930s and early 1940s.
“Critics are angered that one of the books refers to the killing of more than 250,000 civilians by Japanese troops in the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937 as an “incident”, rather than the “massacre” it is known as elsewhere.
“They also say it glosses over mass sex slavery of Asian women by Japanese troops.”

In response, the Japanese publication the Daily Yomiuri reports in its coverage that the Chinese government is afraid of criticism and that:

While the Chinese government is trying to prevent anti-Japan demonstrations from escalating into violent rioting, Beijing appears to be allowing large-scale protests against Japan for fear of being criticized as taking a weak-kneed approach to diplomacy.
“The Chinese government, playing to a domestic audience, is trying to make it look as if it is taking a tough approach toward Japan and is carefully avoiding criticizing demonstrators. The message taken from this by Chinese people, who are sensitive to political nuance, is that their actions are being authorized.”

So far, no-one’s actually discussed what’s said about the action of the Japanese during their occupation of China in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and neither side has offered any possible change in wording either.
I imagine that the Japanese are whitewashing their atrocities while the occupying forces in China, but I also imagine that the Chinese government is exploiting this situation to improve domestic harmony by reminding the people of a common, shared enemy. No doubt Karl Marx would approve.
This is a textbook case in historical revisionism and how it plays out — and the fact that it’s not receiving press here in the United States — is going to be quite interesting. But ask the loser of any war or occupation about how accurately the victor covered the story, or, more to the point, ask any loser about their obligation to be accurate about the historical event.
Today is also the anniversary of the Russians beating the Americans into space. In 1961 we were in the midst of the Cold War and American hearts beat faster after Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin orbited the Earth. It was one of the main justifications for the Apollo space program and JFK’s stirring “We will go to the moon” speech. How many American children know that the Soviets beat us into space, however?

10 comments on “Ultimately, history is written by the historians

  1. Any American child that has seen “The Right Stuff” knows it. Luckily for them, because they won’t learn anything important in class. Burn down the government schools, replace them with Netflix!
    Ultimately history is written by archeologists.
    The reason the Japanese were in China to begin with was that the Treaty of Versailles didn’t return sovereignty of colonial German holdings to China. Wilson’s league of lunatic, meddling progressives gave imperial Japan its foothold in China. But you won’t read that in federally-approved text books either.

  2. I am very confused about China. I have traveled there many times and have enjoyed myself immensely. There are changes going on. It may be slow, but changes are happening. The rich are getting richer and the poor seem to be getting poorer. The social gap is growing. �Infrastructure is expanding rapidly so much so that is will beat the USA in infrastructure in a few years. �In many ways I wish I was in China now. It is such a dynamic society. Times are changing.
    Yet there seems to be a strong social unrest. Is there a bubble waiting to break? I have read many accounts of covered up Chinese unrest in small cities. Normally the government needs to intervene and close up the town with violence or just pure force. (check the web you will find the articles).
    So what is causing the unrest towards Japan and Taiwan? Is the government sponsoring these events? Are they trying to redirect the people�s anger and energy away from internal affairs? �The Anti-Japanese protests seem to be getting larger. Where is this anger coming from? �I could only assume it is from the education system. I can only assume the Chinese education system shines one light on many internal subjects (someone from the China education system please enlighten me on this). Is the education system preaching the wrong doings of others and that China is the greatest nation on earth (with no wrong of their own)? �Could this be the reason the young generation is becoming so upset with the world?
    I have written many questions. I do not have the answers. I am searching for them. I have my own theories on the new �me� generation that is growing in China, but I do not know what is causing this massive swelling of what seems to be �China is right and all others are wrong� mentality.

  3. Since I was aware of the protests before reading your post, from “Big Media” (CNN, etc.) on the weekend, I would say that the “story” has in fact been given a reasonable amount of press here in the U.S.
    My reading of the whole situation is that it really has nothing to do with treatment of China in World War II, but is specifically focused on China trying to prevent Japan from gaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
    Reading between the lines (and past stories as well), China is probably concerned that if Japan can get on, then India is next, and THAT would be a real security problem for China.
    The underlying story is about current 21st Century geopolitics, not lingering hostility over what happened in the middle of the last century. Sure, old “wounds” are great tools for posturing, but that doesn’t make them into the “reasons” for current actions.
    There is no question that the Chinese people are growing restless, but these latest protests are simple a cynical ploy by the Chinese goverment to direct that latent protest energy in a more “productive” (for the government) direction. It’s a very old proy: unite the people in favor of the government by focusing their attention on a common external enemy.
    — Jack Krupansky

  4. There is truth in the overt purpose of such demonstrations: China does not want Japan on a permanent seat in the Security Council. The underlying motivators in this situation run much deeper, though.
    No, the education system does not teach the children they are the best nation and people in the world; the culture does. Though I have come to love China and the Chinese people, it is quite true that the culture itself breeds ethnocentric people with a superiority complex.
    The facts of the Japanese occupation before and during World War II only complicate the issue. A majority of mainland Chinese, let’s say, have no love for the Japanese. However, Dave is very right when he says the Chinese government is exploiting the situation to reinforce a common enemy, to help the people forget about the enemy at home.
    Protests do not happen in China unless the government allows them.

  5. Massacre downgraded to incident? This started as the Rape of Nanking. One could also remind the Japanese that they actively tested biological weapons on civilians in China – some strains of which continue to infect people to this day. This is similar to the term ‘comfort women’ for the kidnapping and use of women in all of the occupied countries as sex slaves in military brothels. The treatment of all occupied peoples by the Japanese made their previous poor treatment by the colonial powers seem almost pleasant. One could consider the brutal treatment of the Japanese military of all prisoners of war – contrast this with the whining about prisoner treatment today.

  6. What the Japanese did to the Chinese during World War II was horrible and shouldn’t be discounted. What the Chinese did to the Chinese during World War II should not be ignored. It’s interesting history and a study in how corruption completely destroys the ability of a country to defend itself against outside invasion. A sort of Industrialized Authoritarianism meets Medevial Hedonism tale that had no winners once the Maoists gained power.

  7. I agree that the Chinese government is using the issue to prevent Japan from gaining a permanent seat in the Security council , but on the other hand Japan had done this book revisions several times.And each time it revised its history books it always ignite an anti-Japanese sentiments across southeast asia , China, Taiwan, Hong kong and even Korea.Lets not forget that The Japanese killed millions of people in these region. And old wounds still hurts. As a filipino , we have heard from our grandparents and older people on how the Japanese mistreated them ,enslave them and killed lots of hopeless civilians.So I couldnt blame the Chinese on getting so mad when they heard about the book revision that downplays its WAR CRIMES in asia during world war two.And Japan should not get any seat in the security council , this people are ruthless and barbaric just like their samurai predecessors.

  8. Americans beware: I’ve read a lot of comments about the re-definition of history, and there is no country on Earth that does this more often than the United States. We should all take this to heart and learn the lessons that are prevalent here. Changing the common perception of events is what provides the fertile breeding ground for ethnocentric attitudes that I’ve read in the comments. We shouldn’t be fooled here, and should realize that taking care of our problems at home will provide the greatest shining example to the world – something we really can be proud of.

  9. “Karl Marx would agree”.
    Karl Marx believed that an utopian society would be a stateless, classless society. Which China is not.

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