With Japan, China Still Walks in the Shadow of the Past: Memory, Identity and Politics

By Amrita Jash


History plays a vital role in regulating behavior of states in international politics. Wherein, ‘historical memory’- the way the past is remembered in the present - acts as an important component of state identity. That is, ‘national identity’ is constructed by identifying ‘self’ to that of the ‘other’, which distinctively defines who ‘we are’ and who we ‘think we are’ in the world in relation to others. It is this identity factor that plays a significant role in shaping state’s perceptions, which further defines their foreign policy behavior. Given this understanding, China’s relations with Japan can best be understood under this ideational rational. The relationship is complex and fraught, tied in the rubric of geographical proximity, economic interdependence and most importantly, a heavy historical baggage - particularly of the 20th century Japanese imperialism. Since the end of the Cold War, the historical controversies have dominantly surfaced in defining the Chino-Japanese relationship.

The central question asks ‘why historical memories are so strong in China’. The answer to this lies in China’s historical narratives that have mainly centered on the collective memory of remembering the defeats, injustices and humiliations that China suffered in the past, rather than glorifying the Chinese people’s previous achievements. The discourse on China’s past humiliations revolve around the central theme of ‘the Century of Humiliation and the quest to restore China’s lost dignity and power’. That is, for China ‘victim’ over ‘victor’ has been imbibed in the historical conscience. What strengthens this perception can be found in the key events that are emblematic of this victimhood narrative. It is primarily dominated by two narratives: first, the two Opium Wars which led to China’s defeat in the hands of the western imperialist powers; and second, the two Sino-Japanese Wars which led to the Japanese invasion of China and its subsequent subjection to brutal atrocities. Given this, it can be argued that what lies at the core of China’s identity of the ‘Self’ is directly related to China’s encounters with the western and later Japanese ‘Others’. Therefore, for China, the historical memory of a ‘victim’ has constructed the identity of a ‘victimized state’, which plays a crucial role in determining foreign policy in the Chinese psyche. This argument stands valid as China’s economic success has failed to heal the wounds of its past, and instead China has become more assertive in claiming the wounds suffered in the past.

The Second Sino-Japanese war, occurring under the larger shadow of WWII, resulted in massive civilian casualties and fatalities among the Chinese population and cemented antagonism toward the Japanese. Image from Britannica. 

The Second Sino-Japanese war, occurring under the larger shadow of WWII, resulted in massive civilian casualties and fatalities among the Chinese population and cemented antagonism toward the Japanese. Image from Britannica. 

The history factor occupies a vital place in the current dynamics of China’s relations with Japan. For China, its actions towards Japan are regulated by the consciousness of brutal memories of the past. The paradox lies in the fact that the burgeoning economic relations between China and Japan have not succeeded in taking a step forward in their political relations. It is noteworthy that the economic partnership between China and Japan makes one of the largest in the world with the bilateral trade ranking the third- largest in the world. China is now Japan’s largest trading partner, accounting for one-fifth of its trade, and Japan is China’s second largest. In addition, Japan is China’s largest investor, with a stock of direct investment of more than US$100 billion in 2014 or US$30 billion more than the next largest source, the United States. However, the trade partnership has failed to mitigate their grievances of the past. It is because, for China, history acts a religion in practicing its relations with Japan. Since the normalization in 1972, Chinas relations with Japan have been primarily guided by the philosophy of “taking history as the mirror and facing forward to the future”, which is motivated by the bias of “never forget national humiliation”. Here, Chinese behavior towards Japan is understood within the context of the chronic illness of the Chinese psyche caused by ‘historical memories’ of a brutal past that has become an anathema in China’s diplomatic relations with Japan. The victimized self identity vis-a-vis ‘an aggressor Japan’ plays a vital role in bedeviling Sino-Japanese relations.

This makes the main causal factors, disputed history and conflicting identities, to declining Sino-Japanese relations. As the relation is guided by the old Chinese proverb, “Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide for the future” [Qianshi buwang, houshi zhishi] is, China takes Japan’s aggressive behavior of the past as a reliable guide to its future inclinations. This is indicative of the fact that historical memory is the key factor that defines China’s present relations with Japan. The argument can be validated by the issues such as Yasukuni Shrine, history text-book issues, comfort women, Diaoyu islands dispute, Taiwan and others, which act as irritants in the stability of the relations. China’s anti-Japanese sentiment on these issues testifies the embedded historical grievances. Thereby, any act on part of Japan reactivates the Chinese memory of the wars and invasions that this country has suffered many years ago. China’s strong reactions - a “knee-jerk response as Allen S. Whiting once put it – to any perceived “revival” of Japanese imperialist ideology or symbols

In this context, it stands validated that in China’s relations with Japan, historical memory is one of the biggest driving forces that shapes and constrains its foreign policy towards Japan. The ideational rational stands true as China’s new nationalism, more precisely, its national identity is rooted in the context of its historical memory, which is tied to China’s national experiences and historical consciousness. Given this logic, Chinas such historical-memory-driven perception of a distrustful Japan impedes the process of reconciliation; thereby, sustaining the inherent suspicion that significantly outlaws Chinas positive attitude towards Japan.

In this view, it can be rightly assessed that if China’s current identity is based on the past atrocities motivated by Japanese aggression, then in future discourse China will continue to interpret every Japanese action through this historical prism. Therefore, it can be strongly stated that in case of China’s relations with Japan, history is not just a tool card to gain concessions from Japan, but rather a strong psychological component that shapes the contours of the present and future of China’s relationship with Japan.


Amrita Jash is a Doctoral Candidate and a Senior Research Fellow in Chinese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-India. She can be reached @amritajash.