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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (February 5, 2004)

More Dilemma

Brad Glosserman (Director of Research at Pacific Forum CSIS)

(This article originally appeared in the January 15, 2004 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)

For most Americans, the second world war began on December 7, 1941, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbour. Europeans date the beginning to the 1939 invasion of Poland. Few westerners appreciate the length and savagery of the Sino-Japanese war that was already in full force.

More than 50 years after its conclusion, that war and its aftermath continue to define Sino-Japan relations. The conflict claimed an estimated 20 million lives, bringing out the very worst in soldiers and leaders of both countries. Periodically, leftovers from the war are discovered, such as the poison-gas shells uncovered in China last year that killed one person and sickened dozens of others. Japanese courts are still hearing cases regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and forced labour.

Yet despite the centrality of the Sino-Japanese war to contemporary Asia, there is still no agreement on what transpired during those eight years, its meaning and why it happened.

To remedy that situation, some two dozen scholars from China, Japan and the west met last week to discuss the military history of the Sino-Japanese war. The project is the brainchild of Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel.

Understanding the war is not just an intellectual exercise. Some of Japan's biggest disputes with its neighbours in recent years have been generated by controversies over history. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine - where the country's war dead are commemorated - are the most obvious manifestation of the festering sore. There are hopes that finding common ground on these issues could provide a foundation for a wider-ranging reconciliation.

'We want to bring together [these] scholars to see if they could agree on what actually happened during the war,' Dr Vogel said. 'Hopefully, they can contribute to resolving the history issue. Scholars can't solve political problems, but they can provide a basic message to politicians who want to promote reconciliation and solve these problems.'

While it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for such exercises - at least in my lifetime - last week's meeting provided some grounds for hope. It was very civil: no raised voices, no nasty swipes. Bitter topics such as the atrocities in Nanking (now Nanjing) or the use of chemical weapons by imperial Japanese troops were notable by their absence. But there was a critical divergence. For the Chinese participants, the starting point for each discussion was an indisputable fact: the Sino-Japanese war was one of aggression. Thus, there was a moral dimension to the study that had to be established before any factual components could be discussed.

One Japanese participant expressed frustration with the need to reiterate that point; 'to begin each comment with a political position'. A historian, he agreed that the war was one of aggression. But he complained that he was not responsible for the events. He observed that many Japanese felt the same way and that China's continuing emphasis on the moral issue was alienating people who were sympathetic to the Chinese position. They are starting to wonder what the real point is. Is China trying to claim the moral high ground? If so, why?

Some of the western historians expressed similar frustrations. For them, attempts to frame the war in moral terms obscure important historical lessons. For example, despite the high number of casualties, the Sino-Japanese war had little impact on the outcome of the war in the Pacific. The critical determinant in the allied victory over Japan was a shortage of ships: even if one million imperial soldiers had not been tied down on the mainland, they could not have stopped the allied march. The Sino-Japanese war was a life-or-death struggle for the Chinese nation, but it is considered by most historians to be a 'peripheral theatre' during the second world war.

Chinese historians were also disinclined to debate Chiang Kai-shek's thinking during the war. Historians have asked whether he put a higher priority on fighting the communists or the Japanese, and how that affected his conduct during the war. The Chinese insisted that whatever the internal divisions, all Chinese would come together for the sake of the nation in times of crisis. As a result, they seemed quicker to defend Chiang than did the Taiwanese. While the nationalist instinct is understandable, it is also an obstacle to an objective and accurate portrait of the war.

The 'fog of war' makes that sort of understanding difficult enough. The fog of politics might make the task impossible.

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