The Past Is Never Dead

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The past few months have been a relatively bright period for China-Japan relations. That’s of course in comparison with the abyss that immediately preceded it. The causes of the past strains included Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead and 14 top-level war criminals are memorialized. But after Koizumi stepped down in September, and Shinzo Abe was chosen to replace him, there’s been an easing of tensions between Asia’s most powerful nations. The biggest sign of this was Abe’s visit to Beijing in October. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to reciprocate with a visit to Japan in April, the first call by a Chinese leader in seven years.

But a recent dustup shows again just how fragile these gains are. At issue are two films about the Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese troops killed as many as 300,000 Chinese during a siege of that Chinese city in 1937. Last week Nanking, an American documentary inspired by Iris Chang’s 1997 bestseller The Rape of Nanking, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. The film has touched off some anger in Japan, where a group of lawmakers and academics pledged their support for The Truth About Nanjing, a film being made by a Japanese director that will paint the massacre as a fabrication of Chinese propaganda. That got a rise out of the Chinese government, which called on Japan to take a “correct and responsible attitude to history.”

It’s fair to say that Japan hasn’t completely come to terms with its wartime aggression, particularly what happened at Nanjing. My former professor Orville Schell wrote recently that a new book published by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, is probably the closest Japan will come to an official inquiry into what happened in that era. But despite the “factual,” “almost scientific” examination in From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor: Who Was Responsible?, Schell says the book glances over Nanjing. That will be harder to do in the walkup to the 70th anniversary of the massacre in December, when The Truth About Nanjing is scheduled to be released.