Historians need to focus on reconciliation
History is at the heart of the tense relations between China and Japan so it is good to see the two countries embarking on a joint study of what happened. No one should be too optimistic, however, that the talks will be able to bridge deep-seated differences when they end in 2008. The discussions will be a success only if historians from both sides are able to narrow those differences and pave the way for smoother political ties.
The talks have begun after years of acrimonious exchanges between Beijing and Tokyo. China is offended by Japan's attempts to gloss over its war-time atrocities in history textbooks. The row has been fuelled by repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. The Japanese moves are regarded by both China and South Korea as signs of growing right-wing influence in Japanese politics.
Already, Japanese commentators have cast doubts on the talks by taking a swipe at the nature of the Chinese regime. They have expressed concerns that Chinese scholars will simply toe the official line on Japan's aggression in China during the second world war, as the ruling Communist Party is the nation's final arbiter of the interpretation of history.
Be that as it may, it should be noted that Beijing's complaints are rooted in historical accounts devoid of ideological undertones. For example, although recent research may justify a reduction in the number of people believed to have been killed in the Nanking Massacre in 1937, a massive number of civilians were certainly slaughtered by the Japanese army. The atrocities were well documented and the subject of a war crimes tribunal. It would be a severe understatement of what happened to call it an incident, as the Japanese prefer to do.
It is true that the Communist Party has tried to monopolise the interpretation of history. But it has loosened its grip in recent years in line with moves to liberalise the study of social sciences. The regime should be constantly taken to task for maintaining its residual control over academic studies. But that should not mean the work of every Chinese historian be regarded as suspect.
Ideally, governments should not be involved in the study of history. Yet, that is unlikely to happen, as history will always remain a sensitive subject with serious political implications. That is especially so in this part of the world, where the major nations have a long history of bitter and bloody rivalries and the interpretation of what happened has much to do with their respective self-image.
Indeed, an understanding of past animosities between sparring neighbours is possible only if their current leaders have the vision to set aside their differences first. A positive example is the reconciliation between France and Germany, which fought two bitter wars in the last century. Early this year, historians from both countries managed to produce a set of textbooks that high-school students of both will use from next year. On contentious issues, the textbooks contain two national accounts to educate students in different perspectives and interpretations.
Such an exercise was unthinkable 50 years ago. But it has now been accomplished because generations of post-second world war French and German leaders have found it to be in the lasting interests of their peoples to make friends, not enemies, with one another. The efforts began with the setting up of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and culminated in the establishment of the European Union in 1992.
Unfortunately, a similar reconciliation has failed to take place in East Asia, even as post-war generations have no direct memories of what happened in a war that ended more than 60 years ago. It is time nations in the region broke out of a time warp in which they have become entrenched. This does not mean distortions of the past should be allowed to suit perceived national interests. But experts leading the talks between China and Japan had better focus on the future as they try to settle differences over their past.