70 years after the end of the second world war, the search for truth and healing continues in Asia

Hans van de Ven lauds the spirit of honest exchange in a series of dialogues between leading second world war historians, as the region marks the 70th anniversary of its end

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 12:24pm

August 15 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Asia. Two decades ago, the 50th anniversary passed without fanfare. Today things are different. Beijing is preparing for a huge military parade on September 3, the date adopted only last year to commemorate the end of the second world war, in which - Beijing now says - China led the fight against fascism in Asia.

Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been preparing for a year to make an official statement about Japan's role. We shall have to wait to know its contents. The best guess is that he will repeat premier Tomiichi Murayama's 1995 expression of remorse for the suffering Japan inflicted, but will also call attention to Japan's contributions to fostering peace and prosperity after the war, implying that its neighbours should accept Japan today as a normal country, as Germany has been in Europe.

If the second world war has been made safe in Europe, consigned to museums, cemeteries and national commemorations, this is not the case in East Asia. In China, anti-Japanese sentiment regularly turns violent. Many Japanese are irritated by the constant demands for ever more profuse apologies and a few deny the reality of Japanese atrocities in China. Political leaders cannot but respond to domestic pressures, but in constructing politically useful narratives of the war, they have sharpened rather than eased the war's legacy of hatred.

To ease tensions, in 2002, three academics - Yang Tianshi of China, Tatsuo Yamada of Japan, and Harvard's Ezra Vogel - decided to bring leading war historians from Japan, China and elsewhere together for a series of conferences. The aim was to create a space for discussion away from political pressures and media scrutiny. At the first, Yang said: "Once we confronted each other in hostility, now we sit together to talk; like the debates at Goose Lake, we seek truth through discussion." The Goose Lake debates took place in 1175 between two Confucian schools at loggerheads about the classics. No agreement was reached, but all shared a commitment to seriousness and honesty.

The participants in the five conferences held so far have found that they agreed on far more than they disagreed. No one denied Japanese atrocities. They jointly produced the first history in English recounting the basic military facts of the war. All participants, including those from mainland China, agreed that the Nationalist rather than Communist forces did most of the fighting against the Japanese.

Agreement, too, was reached that an earlier US-centred view of the war, which judged the Chinese war effort by the extent it contributed to the US defeat of Japan, was problematic. By that standard, China mattered little. But for China, nothing was more important than its war with Japan.

New topics emerged, including Japan's vast terror bombing campaigns. There were disagreements, including about casualties. Debates continued about the role of the Communists, while assessments of the role of the China theatre in the war produced divergent views. Regardless, China's inclusion in the Allied camp was symbolically important.

The poet Cecil Day-Lewis wrote in 1941: "They who in folly or mere greed / Enslaved religion, markets, laws / Borrow our language now and bid / Us to speak up in freedom's cause." He was uncomfortable at being asked to marshal heroic war language to make propaganda for a war he saw as "defending the bad from the worse". He would have agreed with Zhu Xi, the most famous Goose Lake disputant, that "without extensive knowledge, how can we test authenticity or falsehood?"

Each of the conferences has led to books in Chinese, Japanese and English, and so they will have some impact. But their real worth has been to preserve a similar commitment to the honest exchange of views. The Goose Lake spirit, if permitted to spread wider and to let all search for his or her own truth about the war, might begin to salve the wounds that overly nationalist narratives will never heal.

Hans van de Ven is a professor of modern Chinese history at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge