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?