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Legacy of war in Asia

Why the Nanking massacre must never be forgotten

The 80th anniversary of the atrocity by Japanese forces provided an opportunity to reflect on the futility of war at a time when nationalism is on the rise

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 1:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 1:33am

The memory of the Nanking massacre victims has a secure place in the national identity. Yesterday’s 80th anniversary is testament to that. Attended by state leaders including President Xi Jinping, the ceremony in Nanjing was the fourth annual national memorial day since the anniversary was accorded a higher profile in 2014. The enhanced recognition also reflects its contemporary relevance. Even though the atrocity perpetrated by the Japanese aggressor happened so long ago it remains a big psychological and emotional factor in China today.

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Regrettably, it still poisons relations between the two countries, amid disputes over the toll of soldiers and civilians – put at about 300,000 by China – and denials by some on the Japanese far right that it ever happened. The tragedy therefore also has resonance for the people of Asia, given that China and Japan are the most important players in the region.

The toll of the years on the surviving victims of war crimes, with fewer than 100 designated as Nanking massacre “survivors” still alive, adds to the poignancy of the legacy of suffering.

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Addressing yesterday’s gathering, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Yu Zhengsheng said China would never impose the tragedy (of Nanking) on other nations, and that China and Japan should “learn from history” and face the future. The Hong Kong government also held a ceremony to mark the tragedy.

The 80th anniversary was a sensitive time but nonetheless one that provided an opportunity for lasting amends to be made. That is unlikely, however, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a wartime minister who has nationalist ways and the goal of amending the country’s pacifist constitution, continues to fudge the issue of facing the past squarely. As well, despite both sides having expressed a desire to look forward for the sake of their trade relationship, current conflicts such as territorial claims in the South China Sea do nothing to put unresolved historical issues in the past.

As a result, the Nanking massacre remains one of the most fraught anniversaries for the two powerful neighbours. Both sides should work hard to ensure that lessons painfully learned are not forgotten so that under no circumstances would it be allowed to happen again.

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But nationalistic sentiment is rising on both sides, driven by increasingly bold Japanese historical revisionism and a more assertive China under Xi. It is time for everyone to reflect on the futility of war and the tragedy inflicted not only on Chinese people but also on the Japanese amid the catastrophic consequences of the second world war. A chapter of history that may appear to have nothing to do with us is still very relevant today.