Nanijng Massacre Memorial

© Shutterstock

History is Being Rewritten in East Asia

China, South Korea and Japan need to be more honest about their own history if they want peace and stability.

The Nanjing Massacre. “Comfort women.” Did the Chinese communist forces beat imperial Japan or the nationalists? And who really owns the islands known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu?

Yet if there is one thing that China, South Korea and Japan can agree on, it’s that history is a powerful tool that can be used to manipulate their own respective populations.

History is a sensitive subject in East Asia. It is little wonder, then, that Seoul erupted into protest on November 14 over the decision by the government of President Park Guen-hye to make drastic revisions to how history is taught in South Korea’s schools. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of downtown Seoul after the announcement that South Korea’s history textbooks would be replaced with a single officially sanctioned textbook that all high schools will use from 2017.

It is not the first time South Korea has imposed a single state-approved textbook in schools. President Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, issued history manuals in 1974, and these remained in place until 30 years later, when private publishers were finally allowed to print their own history books, ending the state’s monopoly on the teaching of history. Currently, schools can choose from eight different state-approved textbooks.

Of these eight textbooks, conservatives in the government only endorse one as appropriate for teaching purposes. Yet it was criticized for overlooking many episodes of state-sponsored violence in South Korea’s recent history, and for championing the controversial 1961 coup that brought President Park Chung-hee to power. Published in 2013, this book was rejected by schools. Unsatisfied by this shunning, conservatives have decided to ditch the eight-book system and impose a single state-sanctioned textbook.

The aim of this new policy is to correct a “pro-North Korea bias,” with proponents such as Education Minister Hwang Woo-Yea claiming, “We cannot teach our children with biased history textbooks.” Critics of the decision are calling it a whitewashing of history, as it will continue to overlook the atrocities of authoritarian governments of pre-democratic South Korea. In the 2013 book, there is no mention of, for example, the Geochang Massacre of 1951 in which 719 unarmed civilians perished. Photos of the first North-South Korea summit have also been removed, which speaks volumes about the current government’s attitude toward reconciliation with North Korea.

The Park government is also attempting to stifle debate on the legacy of the president’s father, who while modernizing South Korea also presided over serious human rights abuses. Awkwardly, while Korean nationalism is based on opposition to Japan, the elder Park was a Korean collaborator with imperial Japan, serving as an officer in the Japanese colonial government of Manchukuo (now present-day Northeast China).

Nanking, China

Japanese soldiers in Nanking, China, 1937

By reverting back to issuing a single textbook, it makes South Korea the latest East Asian country to meddle with its own history for political purposes.

The History That Bends…

Japan has long been guilty of ensuring a national amnesia of its history. It is a common complaint outside Japan that the Japanese education system simply does not cover enough of World War II and Japan’s attempts at establishing its dominance in Asia during that time. Mariko Oi, a BBC journalist, recalls how the Nanjing Massacre—an atrocity in which between 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were systematically raped, tortured and murdered—was reduced to a footnote in her school history book.

Outside the classroom, an atmosphere of intimidation in Japan is mostly to blame for the muting of open discussion over the country’s dark past. To criticize the Sino-Japanese War could prove to be career-threatening and even life-threatening in Japan. In 1990, a gunman almost fatally shot Motoshima Hitoshi, mayor of Nagasaki, for saying that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for World War II.

Perhaps most damaging is the manipulation of history at the top of Japanese society. In August, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s World War II statement was more sympathetic to the soldiers of imperial Japan, casting them as only following orders from their emperor. “Comfort women” were not mentioned in name, but only referenced in a single sentence as “women … whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” There was no mention of the Nanjing Massacre. Little wonder, then, that both China and South Korea regarded this apology as “lacking sincerity” and “not living up to expectations.”

At its worse, in his statement, Abe appeared to attempt mitigating or even seeking legitimacy for Japan’s past acts of aggression and war crimes. Claiming that “the peace we enjoy today exists only upon such precious sacrifices,” he suggested that the atrocities imposed on East and Southeast Asia by imperial Japan somehow led to peace in the region. It fits in with the Japanese far-right’s version of history in flowery rhetoric: Japan as the liberator rather than colonizer, as the victim and not the aggressor.

The issue of Japan’s past has always been fresh in the minds of Chinese and Korean leaders since Abe’s visit to the controversial Yusukuni Shrine in 2013. Abe visited the site to pay respects despite a chorus of Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese protests that the shrine honors Japanese war criminals as well as Chinese and Korean nationals who were conscripted into the imperial Japanese army against their will.

For Japan and South Korea, preferring to overlook or downplay difficult episodes of their respective histories is a result of their vibrant democracies. South Korean and Japanese leaders often have to pander to far-right views to stay in government and bolster their own authority. In contrast, authoritarian China is effective in stifling debate over its history.

History with Chinese Characteristics

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also exploits history for its own legitimacy. Like Korea, the Chinese brand of nationalism is based on opposition to Japanese intentions. While there is no right-wing party in Chinese politics, the CCP uses the struggle against Japan to bolster its own party’s legitimacy and exploit the nationalism of the Chinese population. “In school, we were taught that the nationalists did not prioritize defending our country,” says Fang Jinqing a student of China’s prestigious Fudan University.


The outcome of the bending of history is increasingly strained relations between the three biggest powers in East Asia. Today, the biggest point of tension has been over island disputes, despite shabby historical claims.


This historical revisionism was on show during the Victory Day parade held in Beijing last September. China is wholly justified in reminding the world of the forgotten sacrifices it made during World War II. However, the Victory Day celebrations exaggerated the role of the CCP in the war against Japanese aggression and ignored the role of the nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek. As Rana Mitter of Oxford University points out, it was the nationalists who endured the worst of the Japanese invasion. Historian Jung Chang goes further, saying that during the war, the Communist Party did not completely cease hostilities toward the nationalists and often sabotaged Chiang’s efforts against the invading Japanese armies.

Beijing loves to cast Japan as an aggressive villain of East Asia. China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, recently compared Abe to Voldemort. While it is true that Japan has not apologized for its war crimes as fully as Germany has done, Japan today is not the aggressive power that is painted in the CCP’s narrative. Unlike China, Japan has not fired a shot, let alone engaged in any conflict since 1945. By being dishonest about Japan, China uses this narrative to claim more clout in the region today. Comments over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) are often laced with references to Japan’s imperial past.

The CCP’s worst offence is the forced national amnesia of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, in which hundreds or thousands died (the death toll is unknown). Meanwhile, just across the border in Hong Kong, an enormous candlelight vigil is held every year—the subject remains completely taboo in public, in the media and online 26 years on. On each anniversary, China’s censors scour the Internet and remove any online posts that reference the massacre. The result is that those born after 1989 or who were too young at the time to remember have no reference to the protests. “Many young people have no idea about the June 6th incident,” says Zhang Bowei, a father of two who works in Beijing.

This is not to say that all history is often used to ill use. China rightly teaches in great detail about the Nanjing Massacre and other Japanese war crimes, which are often forgotten in the West. On any given day of the year, dozens of different schools across China visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Before Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking was published in 1997, very little was known about the massacre outside of China. Neither Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China, nor Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China sought wartime reparations from Japan after the war as both leaders were competing for Japanese trade and political recognition. Against the threat of communism, the United States, too, sought close relations with Japan and did not press the issue.

Great Leaders Make History, Bad Leaders Write It

The outcome of the bending of history is increasingly strained relations between the three biggest powers in East Asia. Today, the biggest point of tension has been over island disputes, despite shabby historical claims. Both China and Japan lay claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Yet China never controlled these islands. China’s claim to Taiwan is also difficult to defend, given that the island was never part of the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, the mainland has not administered Taiwan since 1895. Meanwhile, relations are strained between South Korea and Japan over the Liancourt Rocks, though no conclusive evidence has surfaced as yet on ownership.

The war in East Asia has long been over. But dishonesty over it is threatening peace in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. 

Photo Credit: Chen WS / Everett HistoricalShutterstock.com


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